August 2008 Issue
Dragonflies and damselflies add beauty and intriguing mythology to Ohio's landscape.
Legend tells that an oriental dragonfly so pleased the emperor by eating a bothersome horsefly that the grateful “heaven ruler” bestowed the name Akitsushima, or Isle of the Dragonfly, upon Japan.
A southwestern American Indian myth tells of the dragonfly being created by a boy who fashioned a toy out of cornhusks to brighten the spirits of his sister after she and he were abandoned by their parents. The toy eventually came to life as a dragonfly and became a messenger between gods and men.
Dragonflies are used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, are considered haute cuisine by some aborigines of South America and elsewhere, and long have been portrayed on talismans and other ware as an inspirer of hope among superstitious peoples.
So how is it that some kids growing up in Ohio, including this long-ago kid, not only had to worry about A-bombs and nuns with rulers but about the possibility of having their lips sewn together by an insect?
Oh, the humanity.
Oh, the absurdity, which often enough can be a synonym for humanity.
“Devil’s darning needles is one of the folk names for them,” says Dennis Paulson, speaking as he so often does about dragonflies. “I think they’re so named because people thought they could sew up their eyes and ears while they slept.”
So much for folk wisdom.
Paulson, director emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History in
Tacoma, Washington, is to odonates, the order of dragonflies and damselflies, what Warren Buffett is to making money. That is, both have achieved iconic status in their field.
Paulson, who next to a realm of flying insects was the main attraction during last July’s inaugural Ohio Dragonfly Conference in Wooster, shares with colleague Sid Dunkle the right to name names. So, should you while pasture hopping run across a red-faced autumn meadowhawk, know that Paulson gave it the moniker. Should you be perturbed that the Illinois river cruiser suddenly became the swift river cruiser, making your field guide slightly out of date, blame Paulson.
But don’t blame Paulson for slander. European commoners, especially know-it-all old wives, know-nothing men and gullible children, made up strange stuff that got passed to the New World about dragonflies presiding over the doings of deadly snakes or taking orders directly from the charred lips of Beelzebub. Keep in mind those same people burned witches and thought mice arise spontaneously from piles of grain. On the other hand, is it characteristic only of a medieval mind to wish a bug could sew together the mouths of lying children, scolding women and cursing men while they sleep? Such fantasies probably are not buried all that deep in the contemporary subconscious, even of some moderns hip enough to put studs in their own lips.
Humans, at any rate, often are hard to figure, while the ancient, simple truth about dragonflies is this: They’re elegant killers whose primary interests in life are eating, dodging other eaters and sex. They’ve been up to the same routine for a few hundred million years, and so presumably have got the hang of it.
Dragonflies never did belch flame, but long-gone Meganeura monyi, at 18 inches long and with a wingspan of 30 inches the largest insect known, no doubt brought the heat to prehistoric forests at a time so distant that dinosaurs were merely a glint in the Darwinian eye. Nowadays, the largest surviving species among the 100 or so dragonflies and damselflies typically extant in Ohio are the common green darner and the bulkier, dreamily blue-eyed but scarcer swamp darner. Both range between 3 and 4 inches from tip to tip. The fierce and voracious dragonhunter, an assassin of other large dragonflies, is sighted now and then.
As with their many cousins in the dragonfly/damselfly clan, neither stings. Nor do they bite humans unless deliberately handled, and they take deliberate pains to avoid being handled.
“That people think they sting is one of my pet peeves,” says Traci Williams, who as a Cleveland Metroparks naturalist is forced now and then into a little myth-busting. “I run programs for kids, and they’ll say, ‘They sting.’ I have to tell them, ‘No, they don’t sting.’”
Nor is any darner or its relatives known to do any darning of eyes, lips, ears or, for that matter, socks. Darners and kin do, moreover, make themselves useful to humans by regularly eating their weight in gnats, flies and mosquitoes, hordes of which are caught on the wing and shoveled toward the mouth with legs designed for just the purpose.
“The legs get longer as they go back,” Paulson says. “That’s so they can grab prey and move it forward to their mandibles with all six legs in one motion.”
Utility, though, comprises only a small part of what to a growing number of people makes dragonflies worth watching. Besides being a challenge to look for in their various habitats and entertainingly quick and acrobatic to view on the wing, most are “so-o-o-o-o good-looking,” to swipe a line from a Seinfeld episode. Eyes often iridescent in greens and blues, bodies black or brightly painted like show cars with or without flashy striping, stained or clear wings gleaming in sunlight, the large, glam odonates
ooze natural charisma that some consider the equal of birds and butterflies.
Bob Hopp, 72, of Massillon, for the first time was taking serious notice at Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area, a tract of wetland and field that straddles Ashland and Wayne counties.
“I’m basically a birder. This is a new adventure for me,” he tells an inquisitor along on a Sunday field trip led by Paulson. “I’ve seen these things my whole life but never paid attention.”
Hopp — paying strict mind on a late July afternoon as Paulson with a pair of sweeps netted a widow skimmer and then a ruby meadowhawk for eyeballing and camera close-ups — was one of 140 or so delighted persons attending a two-day symposium. The 2007 conference near Wooster attracted “probably the largest gathering of dragonfly freaks in the world,” says Cheryl Harner, one of the surprised organizers who were expecting to see plenty of dragonflies and damselflies but not so many people. Human attendees buzzed in from six states.
What newbies like Hopp and experienced observers like Paulson encountered were lovely animals with lovely names to match. Dragonflies fall into descriptive groups that include the clubtails, petaltails, spiketails, emeralds, skimmers, darners and cruisers, while damselflies are made up of dancers, bluets, forktails, firetails, rubyspots, spreadwings and, of course, jewelwings.
In general, dragonflies are large and robust in appearance, damselfies smaller, occasionally needle-thin and somewhat fragile-looking. At rest, dragonflies sport spread wings like an airplane, while damselflies fold their wings over their back. Dragonflies are much the stronger fliers, some capable of
attaining close to highway speed in straight flight and able to migrate hundreds of miles, chased south before chill blasts simultaneously shut down the procreative season and kill their life-sustaining prey.
Among the migrating dragonflies, youngish green darners sometimes are seen in bunches as they stream across Ohio fields in the fall on their way to warmer winter digs where breeding and eating aren’t hindered by foul weather. They go the other direction come spring, adding life to the landscape of temperate climes far into Canada.
Most of the dragonflies and damselflies seen in Ohio are native sons and daughters. The early-season emergent adults, their work of passing on DNA completed after mating and egg laying, don’t need to make a trip at summer’s end. Their eggs overwinter under the Ohio ice, some transforming into ferocious-looking and voracious nymphs, depending on species, and in a year or as many as four emerging as winged, mosquito-snaring, sex-happy copies of their parents.
So go ahead and admire, but hold the applause. Dragonflies and damselflies, around a lot longer than humans, don’t require our affirmation. On the other hand, we could probably do a useful, entertaining and handsome insect justice by abstaining from any further calumnies about their dealings with the devil.