Today it was 90 degrees and I spent most of the afternoon with a friend wading in my brook – a body of clear mountain water that flows under a graceful canopy of trees, trees that sheltered us from the brutal Summer Solstice sun and kept the surrounding air moist and cool as well as almost unbearably fragrant. Oh, I am never more appreciative of the forest than on a day like this one. We haven’t had a soaking rain for almost two months and although the humidity provides a little moisture for thirsty trees the forest floor is drying up, the mosses are losing color, lichens are crispy. Fire is an ominous threat, and piles of slash have become a real danger… We were discussing these worries when suddenly three amazing apparitions interrupted our conversation.
Catapulted into the present we both watched in wonder as electric green damselflies darted back and forth below the waterfall, barely lighting on the lacy ferns for seconds before darting away. Emerald sticks shimmered and shivered as they soared after prey.
No other insects symbolize summer quite like this group of colorful, primitive-looking predatory insects. Often we confuse the two species calling both dragonflies. In the late summer garden, both damsel and dragonflies resemble tiny animal fighter jets, fierce-looking with bulbous eyes and gossamer wings.
Just the day before I was kayaking on the pond and had a number of the latter landing on my bow with their outstretched wings. I also noted strings of dragonfly – damselfly (?) eggs attached to reeds floating under water.
Damselfies and dragonflies are closely related. These members of the insect order Odonata include roughly 5,900 species – about 2,600 damselflies and 3000 dragonflies.
Damselflies and dragonflies are both predatory flying insects that look primitive and ancient because they are. Fossil records indicate that prehistoric species are quite similar to those we see today. Modern dragonflies and damselflies are most prevalent in tropical regions, but some species can be found in almost every part of the world except for the polar regions.
In all fairness it is easy to see why dragonflies and damselflies are often confused with one another because they share many characteristics, including membranous wings, large eyes, slender bodies and small antenna. But there are also clear differences. Damselflies have longer thinner bodies that look like needles. In general, dragonflies are sturdier, thicker-bodied insects Once you the difference in body shape most folks can easily identify the two. What is easiest for me to remember is that damselflies look like flying needles while dragonflies resemble small aircraft especially when they land. Damselfly wings are held vertically while dragonfly wings are flat while the insects are at rest.
Both species come in a wide range of sizes and colors. Some are subdued, others dazzle the eye with their brightly metallic hues of greens and blues. Damselflies have the widest range of sizes, with wingspans ranging from about 3/4 inch (19 mm) in some species to 7 1/2 inches (19 cm) in larger species. Some fossil ancestors have wingspans of more than 28 inches! One of the first winged insects, dragonflies have inhabited the Earth for more than 300 million years.
Both damselflies and dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water. Hatched larvae go through a series of molts as they grow, and begin predatory feeding on the larvae of other insects and small aquatic animals like tadpoles. One year someone gave me some dragonfly eggs and forgot to tell me they would eat my tadpoles. Naturally, I was deeply upset when I discovered the trick and was quick to remove the offenders. The Odonata larvae themselves also serve as an important food source for fish, amphibians, and birds. Larval damselflies and dragonflies reach adulthood in as little as three weeks or as long as eight years, depending on species. They go through no pupal stage, but near the end of the larval stage, the insects begin to develop wings, which emerge as useable flight organs after the last molt of the larval stage.
The adult flying stage, which can last as long as nine months, is marked by predatory feeding on other insects, mating, and finally laying eggs in water or moist, boggy areas. As adults dragonflies and damselflies are largely immune to predators, except for some birds. These insects are our friends! They consume large quantities of mosquitoes, gnats, and other biting creatures. Damselflies and dragonflies are visitors we need to entice into our gardens!
In some folklore green dragonflies are supposed symbolize abundance and the greening of the earth. To see these magical flying beings on the afternoon of the summer solstice seemed prescient. I couldn’t help wondering if their timely appearance might suggest that this turning of the wheel might bring us some relief from the difficulties that we are facing on a personal and collective level.
The picture that I have included shows a Sparkling Jewelwing damselfly. Only the tip of the wings is dark, making it easy to differentiate from the more common Ebony Jewelwing. Many areas of the east coast are blessed with these magnificent insects.