You might have noticed that it’s dragonfly season! Dragonflies are some of the most important and charismatic beneficial bugs on the planet. They’re are voracious insect predators feeding on mosquitos, ants, wasps and other pesky critters we generally don’t like. But there is much more to this ancient insect.
Dragonflies were among the very first winged insects to evolve and are believed to be some 300 million years old. Most are tropical and live around water, so it’s not surprising that Florida is home to more than 150 species. They lay eggs in the water and there the nymphs spend most of their lives underwater feeding on mosquito larvae and even tadpoles. As they transform into adults, they become one of the fastest, most agile flying insects, capable of speeds of 35 miles per hour, precision helicopter-like maneuvers and able to cross oceans. They are exclusively carnivorous and catch all their prey in-flight with a 95 percent success rate.
Dragonflies exist on every continent except Antarctica. Their ubiquitous and lengthy existence along with their extraordinary abilities make them the subject of lore resonates across cultures. They are members of the family of insects “Odonata,” a Greek word meaning tooth or toothed one. The mythology behind this is that they evolved from dragons. Of course, they don’t have teeth but prehistoric dragonfly fossils suggest that they once had a wingspan of over two feet!
In most cultures the dragonfly is a symbol of adaptation and self-discovery owed to its mastery of water and wind and its incredible transformation from nymph hood to a vibrant, highly skilled adult. To the Chinese, they represent summer but are also a symbol of instability. Japanese culture reveres them as a symbol of happiness and the samurai considered them a symbol of agility, power, and victory.
Traditional Swedish folklore says dragonflies fly around the neck to measure the value of the soul. In Native American Culture they represent swiftness and action. The Navajo regard them as a symbol of purity as well as renewal after times of hardship. However, in much of Europe dragonflies are often associated with the devil and black magic. English folklore often refers to damselflies (a close but skinnier cousin) as the “Devil’s Darning Needle” from which springs old cautionary tales. If you fall asleep next to a stream the creature will sew your eyes closed and a similar fate could await the lips children who lie.
Whatever you may believe about dragonflies, there can be no dispute about their environmental significance. Not only do they prey on other insects that are destructive and harmful, they are also an important prey item of other beneficial species like birds and frogs. Researchers also study dragonflies as ecological indicators that can reveal information about the health of a body of water quickly and efficiently. Dragonflies have even inspired engineering and technology studies because of their astounding ability to fly in six different directions including backwards. Scientists look to the dragonfly as inspiration for drones, navigation systems, aerodynamics and even wind turbine design.
So, the next time you see one or many hovering around your yard, take a moment to marvel at these amazing creatures, watch them dance in the air and, maybe whisper a small thanks for one of natures most fascinating creations.