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Dragonflies—born in water, masters of flight

Fourth in a series documenting the insects that visit the Habitat For All Garden at Valentine Farm

By Julie Reiff


An arrow clubtail dragonfly (Stylurus spinicepes) chows down on the hornet it caught in mid-air

Walking a trail last fall, I watched as several dragonflies flitted about in the sun, landing occasionally on the tall bracken fern. I tried to photograph one with my phone, but their speed makes that a challenge. So I was surprised when one let me get closer and closer without taking flight. Only when inches away did I notice that it had caught its dinner and was happily feasting on a bald-faced hornet.


Perhaps because we learn as children that dragonflies aren’t a threat...meaning they can’t sting or bite us... we think of them as harmless, but these insectivores are mighty predators indeed.


This shadow darner (Aeshna umbrosa) enjoys the late verbena blooms last October

I have always been fascinated by dragonflies. Their delicate wings belie the fact that they are amazing flyers, reaching speeds up to 30 mph, and can catch prey in midair, fly backward and hover. And they are beautiful! When paddling in the summer, it’s common to have brightly patterned, jewel-toned dragonflies land on the kayak or on nearby water lillies, even landing on me if I’m still enough.


At Valentine Farm, we observed a beautiful array of meadowhawks, shadow darners, green-striped darners, and slender spreadwings. Arrow clubtails and ebony jewelwings were spotted nearby as well. 


Although they visit the garden, these aerial wizards are born in the water. Dragonfly nymphs look almost reptilian. Not long after snow melt, we can find them in our streams, ponds, marshes, and vernal pools. Dragon and damselflies (Odonata family) live about 1 to 2 years as eggs and larvae before crawling out to molt on nearby vegetation. Perhaps you've seen the empty shells they leave behind?


Even as nymphs, dragonflies are mighty hunters

To date, 161 species of Odonata have been documented in Maine, with 5-10 other species not observed here but considered likely given that they have been seen in neighboring states. That’s more than a third of all species known in North America (435 species). 

Two chalk-fronted corporals (Ladona julia)

While the chalk-fronted corporal might also be spotted as early as May, the autumn meadowhawk is seen in Maine into November! Most species will spend the winter as nymphs in the water but a few are now known to migrate to warmer climates.


The long-distance, multi-generational migration of some adult dragonflies easily rivals the more familiar migration of the legendary monarch butterfly. The wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), for instance, undertakes a journey from India to Africa, twice the distance of the monarch’s in North America—and across the open ocean.*


And although dragonflies are not pollinators, there are things we can do in our gardens to help them thrive, like avoiding pesticides. Dragonflies are among the insects hardest hit by the use of neonicotinoids, the chemical thought to contribute to colony collapse disorder in bees. 


And because we want to support them in every stage of their life, the most important thing we can do for Dragonflies is to protect the wetlands where they breed. Introducing water features with plants or a small garden pond to your own landscape can help too.


To learn more about the insects that visit the garden, visit our project on iNaturalist.


[All photos by Julie Reiff]


Sources:

  • Maine Entomological Society: Odonata

  • Maine Damselfly and Dragonfly Survey

  • Xerces Society blog: Ambassadors for a Watery World*


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