By Tony Mills
Over a hundred species of dragonflies prowl our state, many of them right here in the low country. Common names like comet darner, arrowhead spiketail and dragonhunter to name a few, hint at the myths surrounding these common wetland creatures.
Legend has it that dragonflies, sometimes called devil’s darning needles, have the ability to sew up injured serpents with their bodies. These “snake doctors” were also rumored to have the ability to warn snakes of impending danger. Other erroneous legends suggest that these primitive insects followed and protected children from the dangers of the woods.
In reality, dragonflies belong to an order of insects called Odonata, Latin for “toothy ones”. They differ from the closely related damselflies in that they hold their wings flat and parallel to the ground (damselflies fold the wings vertically). Like other insects, dragonflies have six legs and a body divided into three body parts (head, thorax and abdomen). They use their two pairs of wings to fly at incredible speeds often chasing down and capturing speedy flies and other insects in mid air. Often referred to as “mosquito hawks,” these beneficial insects, feed on a variety of “pesky” bugs like deerflies and mosquitos.
If you spend time watching dragonflies in the wild you’ll see a variety of fascinating behaviors associated with catching food, seeking mates and securing territories. Elaborate mating rituals take place in the spring and summer for most species. The fertilized eggs are deposited on aquatic plants in wetlands or dipped into pools or streams where they hatch into larvae called nymphs or naiads. These larvae are voracious predators feeding on a variety of insects, tadpoles salamanders and even small fish. Their jaws can be extended to over half the length of the body and the alien-like mouthparts are used to capture prey and hold it in a feeding position.
The larvae grow rapidly and reach larval maturity in a few months or years depending on species. To ready themselves for metamorphosis, they climb out of the water on a stick, limb or leaf. The outer covering splits and a shriveled-up adult dragonfly emerges from the casing. It may take the insect hours to ready its body for flight and for the wings to fill with blood and cure. Dragonflies are especially vulnerable to predation at this stage and many are eaten by fish, birds and even other dragonflies who may cannibalize their own siblings. Initially these newly formed adults may be pale, but later develop the bright blue, green and red hues of their particular sex and species. The males spend much of their lives patrolling territories, mating and catching food. Most adults are short-lived so after a few weeks of living life to the fullest, their bodies are eaten by a variety of fish, birds and other insects.
Although dragonflies don’t really heal snakes or do many of the magical deeds that are attributed to them, they are valuable animals that play a significant role in local ecology. And remember, the very flies, mosquitoes and no-seeums they eat could be the ones that bite you and your family.
Tony Mills has been working in the field of environmental education for over two decades with emphasis on southeastern animals and plants. He is the Education Director for the LowCountry Institute on Spring Island and also writes and hosts the Emmy award winning “Coastal Kingdom” TV program about Lowcountry creatures. www.coastalkingdom.com
Above: Tony Mills holds a dragonfly in an episode of his award-winning TV show Coastal Kingdom.