For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Ready to engage in some dragonfly watching—or, should we say “dragonfly chasing”? Join an intrepid dragonfly chaser and admire some close-up shots of these colorful insect helicopters.
In the old days, any person in a public park throwing their arms and running back and forth might have been seen as a mad scientist hard at work. No longer. Now that same person may be simply a well-balanced multi-tasker with a telephone the size of a thimble implanted in one ear, carrying on high-level negotiations with his business interests, and simultaneously performing his daily t’ai chi exercises.
The only way to ensure that you’ll draw the attention of passersby is to become the maddest of mad scientists: the dragonfly netter. There he is, rushing side to side, head on a swivel, waving around a long-handled pole with a long white net streaming out from it like a flag of no-surrender. What he chases is invisible at this distance, but given all his tiptoeing, zigzagging, lunging, and crawling on hands and knees, the quarry must be as elusive as the bats in his own belfry.
Capturing the Elusive…Spotted Spreadwing
Photograph by Cynthia Nichols
Watching for Dragonflies
If you were out for a stroll 300 million years ago, you would have been well aware of dragonflies: some of the Meganeura, their ancient relatives, had wingspans of more than two feet. (The atmosphere’s higher oxygen content at that time allowed flying insects to grow exceptionally large.) These insects have been around long before the dinosaurs appeared.
Today, though, dragonflies are easy to miss unless you keep a watchful eye out for them. Brightly colored, in metallic blues and greens and golds, sending out flares of iridescence, and fast as rockets, with their two sets of paper-thin wings propelling them forward at 100 body-lengths per second, these are true masters of flight and glorious to behold.
Photograph by Henry Walters
Amazing Dragonfly Facts
Both dragonflies and damselflies are members of the insect order Odonata—which fans usually call “odes.” The difference between a dragon and a damsel is the wing position when perched: Dragonflies hold their wings straight out to the side, while damselflies partly spread their wings or fold them together behind them.
Like the birds with whom they share airspace, dragonflies’ vision is as incredible as their speed. Imagine having eyes that take up most of your head; that can see in all directions, above and below, 360 degrees around; that consist of 28,000 distinct lenses, each one sending its own worldview to the brain, 80 percent of which is busy making sense of all this visual information. You would be…a different sort of creature. If only Franz Kafka had turned the protagonist of his story The Metamorphosis into a dragonfly, the character might have been quite pleased with his new state of being.
On the other hand, a dragonfly’s life seems impossibly short, rarely longer than a year. Like other insects, it begins as an egg, then hatches into a flightless larval form, called the “nymph.” Only in the last four weeks of its existence does it metamorphose into the predatory, migratory, cheetah-fast adult that can be found soaring over our marshes, orchards, or open fields. Briefly, intensely, with eyes that see the whole world, it rises only to “fall / With the other husks of summer” (Louise Bogan).
Common Green Darner
Photograph by Cynthia Nichols
How to Become a Dragonfly Catcher
Over 5,600 species of dragonfly occur world-wide, about 450 of them in the United States. A few can be identified in flight, but many differ from each other in subtle ways, and require close inspection. Get yourself a net, a field guide, and a camera, and see what you come up with.
While spring is a great season to search for dragonflies, the hardiest of them are still out and about through October, even at northern latitudes. Head out once the temperatures have warmed up. As water lovers, they are often around ponds, streams, bogs and rivers. Interestingly, dragonflies are a becoming a good barometer of environmental health and water purity. Some species such as clubtails need pristine, fast-flowing water.
As with many natural phenomena, once you begin looking, you’ll spot them everywhere. You’ll start running after them. And out of the corner of one of your 28,000 lenses, you’ll catch sight of the businessman on the sidewalk, stopping short to watch you, a little nervously, wondering whether you could be a mad scientist, and what in the world you’ve seen.