Since I was a kid, dragonflies have always fascinated me. Beautifully painted creatures carried on the wind by iridescent wings. So many colors, so many shapes. Their mystery is a wonder that has had me mystified for years. It’s easy to be fascinated by dragonflies. They were among the very first winged insects to evolve more than 300 million years ago. Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, characterized by large multifaceted eyes, two pairs of strong, transparent wings, and an elongated body. Dragonflies are similar to damselflies, but adults hold their wings away from, and perpendicular to the body when at rest. Their two sets of wings work independently, allowing dragonflies to maneuver through the air effortlessly. Their huge eyes give them incredible vision in almost every direction except directly behind them.
Flying insects are usually annoying. Mosquitoes bite you, leaving itchy red welts. Bees and wasps sting. Flies are just disgusting. But there’s something magical about dragonflies. Here’s a few fun facts about the amazing dragonfly:
- Dragonflies were some of the first winged insects to evolve, some 300 million years ago. Modern dragonflies have wingspans of only 2 to 5 inches, but fossil dragonflies have been found with wingspans of up to 2 feet.
- Some scientists theorize that high oxygen levels during the Paleozoic era allowed dragonflies to grow to monster size.
- There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies, all of which (along with damselflies) belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed one” in Greek and refers to the dragonfly’s serrated teeth.
- In their larval stage, which can last up to two years, dragonflies are aquatic and eat just about anything — tadpoles, mosquitoes, fish, other insect larvae and even each other.
- At the end of its larval stage, the dragonfly crawls out of the water, then its exoskeleton cracks open and releases the insect’s abdomen, which had been packed in like a telescope. Its four wings come out, and they dry and harden over the next several hours to days.
- Dragonflies are expert fliers. They can fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air. If they can’t fly, they’ll starve because they only eat prey they catch while flying.
- Dragonflies catch their insect prey by grabbing it with their feet. They’re so efficient in their hunting that, in one Harvard University study, the dragonflies caught 90 to 95 percent of the prey released into their enclosure.
- The flight of the dragonfly is so special that it has inspired engineers who dream of making robots that fly like dragonflies.
- Some adult dragonflies live for only a few weeks while others live up to a year.
- Nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, so they have incredible vision that encompasses almost every angle except right behind them.
- Dragonflies, which eat insects as adults, are a great control on the mosquito population. A single dragonfly can eat 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day.
- Hundreds of dragonflies of different species will gather in swarms, either for feeding or migration. Little is known about this behavior, but the Dragonfly Swarm Project is collecting reports on swarms to better understand the behavior.
- Scientists have tracked migratory dragonflies by attaching tiny transmitters to wings with a combination of eyelash adhesive and superglue. They found that green darners from New Jersey traveled only every third day and an average of 7.5 miles per day (though one dragonfly traveled 100 miles in a single day).
- A dragonfly called the globe skinner has the longest migration of any insect — 11,000 miles back and forth across the Indian Ocean.
There are a lot of folklore about dragonflies and one of my favorite is the Native American myth that dragonflies come from dragons. According to the story, a coyote convinced a dragon to shapeshift into the dragonfly we know today. Unable to change back into a dragon, the dragonfly represented change and illusion.
It was also believed by some Native Americans that if a dragonfly landed on your fishing pole, it meant you would have success catching fish. I had dragonflies land on my fishing pole when I was a kid, and I actually did catch fish.
The dragonfly has been a symbol of happiness, new beginnings and change for many centuries. The dragonfly means hope, change and love. And I just love dragonflies.
The Smith County Master Gardener program is a volunteer organization in connection with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.