The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
After a brief but heavy summer rainfall, my two sons and I watched winged termites boil from the ground floating slowly upwards. I thought of all the places they would land, and all the destruction they would wreak. I felt hopeless to defend our homes and other wooden structures as there were just too many of them.
Then the “air-cav” came into the arena from every angle. The dragonflies had arrived right on cue, and just like little helicopters, they raced to the termites, grasped them with clawed feet, tore off the wings, and ate the bodies, all in flight. The dragonflies were methodical and efficient, and there was nothing left in five minutes but termite wings slowly floating to the ground. Not one got away.
We watched the same scenario a few years later when a swarm of flying ants invaded our neighborhood. Again, as if cued by a director, the dragons came in the same cavalry formation and annihilated all the flying ants. Ant wings littered our driveway.
These airborne adult insects only live a few weeks; mating is their primary objective. The resulting eggs must live in water, and the female knows to place them properly. Eggs are dropped by the female dragonfly with each dip of her tail upon the pond’s surface. The egg soon hatches, and the larval stage is set.
This tiny six-legged monster of the deep is supplied with a huge jaw, lined with teeth-like bristles, and an appetite to fit it. The jaw is hinged on an articulated arm that strikes out when any unsuspecting bug or other morsel floats within range, and is not too big for its mouth. The action is lightning fast, and the bug is devoured.
The larvae actually live a year or sometimes two underwater. They don’t swim well so they slowly stalk their prey, which can be as large as tadpoles and fish fry. During these years underwater, they breathe through gills. Then some mysterious clue sends this waterborne animal out into the atmosphere by crawling up a water plant’s stem.
Once in the air a major transformation takes place, changing this water-lover to an aerial ace. The outer skins dries, then cracks down the back. Several minutes roll by as the new monster bursts from its skin (remind you of “Alien”?) and slowly pumps blood into its ever-expanding wings. The veins in the four wings then solidify. The rest of the body expands too, looking nothing like the larva. All that’s left of that previous life is the dried shell still clinging to the stem.
I’ve seen dragonflies at 10,000 feet elevation on tops of mountains. Where’s the water? Miles away. According to Dr. Ryan Caesar of Schreiner University (an authority on dragonflies), some migrate hundreds of miles to warmer climes. This allows the species to survive harsh conditions until it is favorable to return. It may take generations, but the squadron of tiny helicopters will be back sure as summer will again return.
It is said that a dragonfly brings good luck to anyone it lands on. My father called them “snake doctors” and said if one lands on your fishing pole, you are soon to get a bite. I think this was to focus the attention of a 6-year-old boy on the job at hand rather than the three thousand other attractions vying for him on that pond bank.
Some Native Americans revere the dragonfly as a bringer of water (rain), but also as a symbol of transformation in a person’s life. Their thinking is that if the larva can make such a great change, we can too. That is why you see the dragonfly design in so many Native American crafts and art. This transformation can also take generations to be fulfilled, so patience is required, and rewarded. My sons and I were rewarded just by being bystanders in an aerial feast from the Dragon Squadron.
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.