Dragonflies

by Tenzicut River

These are some of my favorites. I used to get them in my garden in Oregon in all different colours, ...blues, green, orangey-red.... They fold their legs together like a basket and can catch several mosquitoes in the 'basket' at a time. I used to put thin bamboo sticks in the garden at random for a perch for them.

This last summer (such as it was) I got the honor of observing these strange bugs crawling out of the lake and onto shore by the millions. They attached themselves to benches, rocks, firepits, bushes and everything and then I started watching them closer and what happened? The 'bugs cracked open' and a wet and weird looking longer bug crawled out of the shell. I watched a little longer and the wings unfolded and dried and with a little waving around dried more and it became a beautiful (HUGE) dragonfly. This miracle was happening all over the place and soon when the day had warmed up, there were thousands upon thousands of 6-9 inch greenish dragonflies taking to the air and they were landing on me and my friends. It was pretty cool.

Dragonflies are only one of a few types of creatures who prey upon mosquitoes, and for that, humans should be thankful. In this and other ways, dragonflies play an important role in maintaining the balance of biodiversity in the coastal ecosystem.

In existence for the past 280-380 million years, dragonflies are some of the most ancient insects around. The first dragonflies that existed were much larger than the present day species, having a wingspan reaching 35 inches. Today, dragonfly wingspans rarely exceed 10 inches, yet these insects are still able to reach speeds of 19 miles per hour. In addition to two elongated wings, dragonflies are equipped with six legs, although they are seldom used for walking. Their abdomen is elongated and they have large heads, a short antennae, and sensitive eyes to assist dragonflies in finding their prey.

As predators, adult dragonflies feed on flying insects, such as mosquitoes which they catch on their wings, either by flying around or sitting stationary. Dragonflies are unique in that they are carnivorous, eating other insects in abundance. It is not uncommon to hear of a dragonfly stuffing its mouth with up to a hundred mosquitoes at one time! Known as the "mosquito hawk," dragonflies may be our best defense against a world overcrowded with those bothersome blood-sucking pests. Some believe that as an alternative to the current method of using dangerous insecticides to control the mosquito population (as San Pedro does), perhaps dragonflies should be farmed and released. In several areas of the world, this has proven to be an effective method of ensuring the balance of biodiversity, while also keeping mosquito populations in check, and that is a very good thing.

Dragonflies are among the most glittering jewels of the entomological world. And the most successful - their genetic pattern is an ancient one, as revealed by the time stained imprints of their gigantic wings and bodies fossilized hundreds of millions of years ago. Approximately 400-500 species are known in the United States, with new species being described every year. Their color and behavior have excited many professional and amateur entomologists, but unlike butterflies and beetles, dragonfly colors rarely preserve well in a collection. The insect so brilliant in life is reduced in a museum to a dull caricature of itself. Recent preservation protocols using acetone have increased specimen quality and gone far in maintaining the original color. However, no technique other than photography works completely at capturing color, and nothing else has been able preserve the color of the eyes.

Dragonflies are among the most ancient of living creatures. Fossil records, clearly recognisable as the forefathers of our present day odonates, go back to Carboniferous times which means that the insects were flying more than 300 million years ago, predating dinosaurs by over 100 million years and birds by some 150 million. It would be tragic if, after surviving such an unimaginable number of years, it should be our generation that witnesses a serious decline of these fascinating and beautiful insects.

Odonates develop in water and, in order to protect them, it is necessary to study the exact habitat requirements of each individual species and then to protect, conserve and, where possible, increase the number of suitable habitats. The habitat requirements of some species are narrow and these are obviously the ones that are most at risk. Other species species are catholic in their needs and will survive in almost any kind of water, a few even tolerating water that is brackish. The majority fall between these extremes, some requiring running water, some still and some bogs and marshes.

Sadly, suitable sites are disappearing faster that new ones are formed and, until that trend is reversed, there is continuing cause for concern. Rivers become polluted; ponds are allowed to become clogged up with debris and week; marshland is drained to satisfy the ever increasing demand for roads and houses; primeval forests are disappearing and, with them, the mountain streams which contain some of the world's most interesting and primitive species.

Important questions are: how can we ensure that no more odonate habitats disappear? and how can we encourage the spread of species that are not so seriously at risk? Here are some answers:

You can dig small ponds in our gardens or back yards, larger ones in our school playing areas and even larger ones in various types of open space. It will not be long before dragonflies and damselflies start to colonise them, since many species readily discover new habitats.

Farmers and other landowners can be urged to preserve their hedgerows and copses where adults shelter in dull weather, and to keep ponds and other water on their land clear of effluent. Lakes and ponds should not be allowed to become overgrown with reeds or other aquatic plants, nor should overhanging branches of trees be permitted totally to block out the sun.

You can join or, if necessary, set up a local group of conservation volunteers. The help such groups provide can be tremendously rewarding.

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