Friday, February 19, 2021

Dragonflies: Learning to swim before they fly

adult dragonflyDragonflies are nature’s little aerial acrobats.  Likened in bodily shape to a helicopter with numerous maneuvers, they can fly straight up and down, forward and backward, hover and even mate mid-air

There are 7,000 species of dragonflies and mayflies, the dragon flies smaller cousin, in the world.

The Adirondacks are home to approximately 30 species of dragonflies. They typically stay close to water; most species of dragonfly spend the majority of their life underwater or close to the surface of the water. Depending on the species, dragonflies prefer ponds, marshes, or streams.

A dragonfly has a life span of more than a year, but very little of that life is actually as an adult dragonfly. There are three stages of the dragonfly life cycle, the egg, the nymph, and the adult dragonfly. Most of the life cycle of a dragonfly is lived out in the nymph stage where they aren’t seen at all, unless you are swimming underwater in a lake.

A male and a female dragonfly will mate while they are flying in the air. After mating, the female dragonfly will lay her eggs on a plant in the water, or if she can’t find a suitable plant she will just drop them into the water.

Once the dragonfly eggs hatch, the life cycle of a dragonfly larva begins as a nymph. A nymph looks like an alien creature. It hasn’t grown its wings yet and has what looks like a crusty hump hanging onto its back. Dragonfly nymphs live in the water while they grow and develop into dragonflies. This portion of the dragonfly life cycle can take up to four years to complete, and if the nymph cycle is completed in the beginning of the wintertime, it will remain in the water until spring when it is warm enough to come out.

dragonfly nymph

A dragonfly nymph

Once the nymph is fully grown, and the weather is right, it will complete the metamorphosis into a dragonfly by crawling out of the water up the stem of a plant where it can hang on safely.  The nymph will shed its skin and begin its exit into a young dragonfly. The skin that the nymph left behind is called the exuvia and you can find the exuvia still stuck to the stem for a long time after the dragonfly has left it.

Once the dragonfly leaves the exuvia, it is fully grown. The dragonfly will hunt for food and begin to look for a mate.  Dragonflies are flat-out terrifying if you’re a gnat, mosquito, or other small bug. They don’t simply chase down their prey. Instead, they snag them from the air with their feet in calculated aerial ambushes. Dragonflies can judge the speed and trajectory of a prey target and adjust their flight to intercept prey.   The dragonflies’ ability to rip apart prey takes their predatory prowess to another level.

Dragonflies are in the order Odonata, meaning “toothed ones” due to their serrated mandibles. When hunting, dragonflies catch prey with their feet, tear off the prey’s wings with their sharp jaws so it can’t escape, and consume their prey all without needing to land.  As apiarists we cringe when we see a swarm of dragonflies near our honeybee hives.  The dragonflies swoop down on a flying honey bee, an introduction for an aerial combat as the bee attempts to sting the dragonfly before it bites its wings or head off and then eats it.  A number of dragonflies have met their demise by being stung before they can incapacitate the bee.  In order to help to eliminate these types of negative encounters, we smoke the area, causing the bees to immediately retreat to their hive and the dragonflies quickly disperse from the area.

Thankfully, dragonflies can’t bite humans. The vast majority of species don’t have mandibles strong enough to break our skin, so its safe to experience these creatures in nature with out the worry of an ambush.  Every creature is amazing, from humans to insects, there are numerous wonders to experience.

Images by Jackie Woodcock

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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

9 Responses

  1. stan says:

    Thank you – well done. Had no idea nymph cycle was so long. I fish a lot and dragonflies are great entertainment.

  2. Thomas Balise says:

    Thanks for teaching things i don’t take the time to learn!
    As a kid I knew they wouldn’t bite and were helpful, but the rest of the lifecycle was unknown. An old bio major, I’ve probably forgotten as much as I’ve learned! Thanks

    • Hi Tom,
      Thank you for reading my article! I’m happy you found it informative and I’m sure your knowledge is just like riding a bike, we may not always use it but when we give it a wherl it all comes back.

  3. Sally Hart says:

    Who knew?
    Thank you Jackie! Factual, succinct and fascinating!
    I had the thrill of experiencing a nymph emerge from its exuvia, spread its wings and launch this past summer. A 30 minute transformation after possibly 4 years underwater? Hard to believe.

    • Hi Sally,
      Thank you for reading my article and for your kind comment! That is amazing! I have never seen a dragonfly emerge from the exuvia but I have seen many butterflies enclose and it is stunning!

  4. Tom Clarke says:

    What happened to Damselflies, also related, according to UC Berkeley website? Thanks, Tom Clarke on the Mississippi in Minneapolis MN

  5. Marge Villanova says:

    Does the Almanack come in print form? If so how can I subscribe? I’m especially interested in an article about High Rock and the resort that used be there.
    Thank you.

  6. Hi Tom,
    You are so right! The damsel fly is the dragonflies smaller cousin and in many cases more gorgeous due to their metallic coloring. It was not my intention to ignore these little guys! I was attempting to keep my article within 500 words and actually had a personal experience with dragonflies! So many amazing creatures and so little time to write about them all. I did read the article you attached and I enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Joanna Panzera said “Great article. I also love that dragonflies are used to symbolize ancestors.”

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