Beautiful Insects

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It has been a busy, busy month here at the farm.  We’ve celebrated two birthdays, an anniversary and Father’s Day, graduated from our Master Food Preserver’s class and can now inflict our knowledge (or lack of) on the general public, had visits from Bruce’s parents and our daughters; built a barn and have it mostly painted and we’re starting to bring in the crops–zucchini, snow peas, shelling peas, summer squash, kohlrabi, blueberries and plums.  But in between all of this, I have been sick for almost a month so I’ve been neglecting this blog.  I wrote this piece about the dragonflies early in June and am just now getting back to it.  We’ve seen a few dragonflies here and there, but no swarms.  I think the fact that our ponds dry up in the summer means that there will be a lack of dragonflies.  Too bad.

On a similar topic, July 19-27th is National Moth Week.  There is a lot of info about this here:

Maybe next year I’ll do more with that.  We’ve seen a few interesting moths and butterflies during the day, but mostly we have lots of small, white ones.

Moth3   Moth2



Cinnabar Moth

Moth-Sphinx chersis

Sphinx chersis Moth


Swallowtail Butterfly



As stated above I wrote a  post about dragonflies because we’d been  seeing them around the farm.  I found them to be interesting, so an intended short post turned into a long one.  I found a wealth of  information about dragonflies, so read on if you want to find out more about this fascinating creature.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail


The order Odonata, which means “toothed ones” includes some of the most ancient and beautiful insects that ever roamed Earth, as well as some of the largest flying invertebrates ever to have lived. Odonata consists of three groups.  This order is very diverse with about 5000 species, and its members are easy to observe.

Immature dragonflies have six spindly legs, and a body that is only a few times longer than it is wide. They have two fairly big eyes. Some of their mouthparts are modified to shoot forward and grab prey. They breathe water through gills in their abdomen, and can squirt this water out fast to give themselves a quick jet-propelled movement.  Immature dragonflies are usually brown or greenish, and sometimes have algae growing on them.

Adult dragonflies are easy to recognize. They have long thin bodies, very large eyes, and they hold their 2 pairs of wings out flat on either side. Their legs sometimes have many long stiff hairs.  Adult dragonflies can be very colorful, some are red, blue, yellow, or green. [1]


Distinctive characteristics can be found on the head, thorax, and abdomen of the dragonfly. These can be colors, shapes, or patterns. Some identifying features to look for are:

  1. Eye color
  2. Facial markings
  3. Color, shape, size of thoracic stripes
  4. Color, number and position of spots on wings
  5. Shape and length of abdomen
  6. Color of abdominal stripes and spots
  7. Terminal segment color
  8. Shape of cerci- paired appendages on the rear-most segments.  Many forms of cerci serve as sensory organs,but some serve as pinching weapons or as organs of reproduction. [2]

Dragonflies and Damselflies are in the same order of Odonata but have significant differences making them easy to differentiate:

  • Damselflies are small and delicate looking with a weak flight.  The wings are held closed along their body.  All 4 wings are the same shape and size.  Their eyes are separated, never touching and are positioned on either side of the head.
  • Dragonflies are larger and are strong fliers.  The wings are open at rest and the hindwings are shorter and wider than the forewings.  They have large eyes, close together which encircle the head and usually touching. [3]


Dragonflies can range in size from one inch to nearly six inches long.  Measuring the length of a dragonfly refers to the “nose” to the tip of its tail.

It may seem easy to determine what color a dragonfly is, but there can be a lot of variations. Many species actually undergo changes in color as they mature, as well as change as the temperature varies. Dragonflies are cold-blooded, thus a dragonfly can become a darker color in cooler weather, turning blue spots into purple or grey in cooler temperatures. Female dragonflies can also be colored differently from the males, though most young males are colored similarly to the females early in their life cycle. However, all dragonflies start out with hardly any color, though some traces of their adult pattern may be visible. Some species, as they age, become pruinose – meaning they develop a bluish-white bloom that can cover their bodies and render their patterns obscure. Others can become darker, making their markings less distinctive.


Dragonflies are magnificent aerialists, able to hover, dive, fly backward and upside down, pivot 360 degrees with three tiny wing beats, and reach speeds of 30 miles per hour.  In many insects, the wings are simple extensions of the thoracic box and are moved largely as a unit, by flexing the entire thorax. In the dragonfly, the four transparent, ultraflexible wings are attached to the thorax by separate muscles and can each be maneuvered independently, lending the insect an extraordinary range of flight options.

Dragonflies look dainty, glittery and fun, like a bubble bath or costume jewelry, and they’re often grouped with butterflies and ladybugs on the very short list of Insects People Like. Yet they are also voracious aerial predators, and new research suggests they may well be the most brutally effective hunters in the animal kingdom. When setting off to feed on other flying insects, dragonflies manage to snatch their targets in midair more than 95 percent of the time, often wolfishly consuming the fresh meat on the spur without bothering to alight. “They’ll tear up the prey and mash it into a glob, munch, munch, munch,” said Michael L. May, an emeritus professor of entomology at Rutgers.

A dragonfly can be missing an entire wing and still capture prey.

Dragonflies are true visionaries. Their eyes are the largest and possibly the keenest in the insect world, a pair of giant spheres each built of some 30,000 pixel-like facets that together take up pretty much the entire head.

They have a full field of vision.  They can see you when they’re flying toward you and still see you when they’re flying away.

Dragonflies can fly forward at about 100 body-lengths per second, and backwards at about 3 body-lengths per second. They are also capable of hovering in the air for about a minute. Longer periods of stagnant flight would interfere with thermoregulation. The wings of male dragonflies are relatively longer and narrower than females in large species. Adult wingspans measure from 17 millimeters (0.669 in.) (Agriocnemis) to 20 centimeters (nearly 8 inches) (Coerulatus).

Perhaps not surprisingly, much dragonfly research both here and abroad is supported by the United States military, which sees the insect as the archetypal precision drone. [4]

Myths and Cultural Perceptions

The word Dragonfly and the family it belongs to, Odonata, have evolved from the many myths associated with Dragonflies and  Damselflies.  The word Dragonfly has its source in the myth that Dragonflies were once Dragons.

The family name Odonata comes from the Greek word for tooth as Odonates were believed to have teeth.  It is a verified fact now that while they don’t have ‘teeth’ per say, they have strong mandibles that they use to crush their prey. The dragonfly’s agile flight and its ability to move in all six directions exudes a sense of power and poise. The dragonfly can   hover like a helicopter, fly backwards like a hummingbird, fly straight up, down and on either side. It can do this while flapping its wings a mere 30 times a minute while mosquitoes and houseflies need to flap their wings 600 and 1000 times a minute respectively. To the Japanese, it symbolizes summer and autumn and they are admired and respected  so much so that the Samurai used it as a symbol of power, agility and victory.

As a seasonal symbol in Japan, the dragonfly is associated with summer and early autumn.  More generally, dragonflies are symbols of courage, strength, and happiness, and they often appear in art and literature, especially haiku. The love for dragonflies is reflected by traditional (layman’s) names for almost all of the 200 species of dragonflies found in and around Japan.  Japanese children catch large dragonflies as a game, using a hair with a small pebble tied to each end, which they throw into the air. The dragonfly mistakes the pebbles for prey, gets tangled in the hair, and is dragged to the ground by the weight.

Beyond this, one of Japan’s historical names – Akitsushima (Kanji: Hiragana: あきつしま) – is an archaic form meaning “Dragonfly Islands”. This is attributed to a legend in which Japan’s mythical founder,  Emperor Jinmu, was bitten by a mosquito, which was then promptly eaten by a dragonfly.

In China, people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and as a good luck charm.  They have also been used in traditional medicine in Japan and China. In some parts of the world they are a food source, eaten either as adults or larvae; in Indonesia,for example, they are caught on poles made sticky with birdlime, then fried in oil as a delicacy.

Amongst Native Americans, it is a sign of happiness, speed and purity. Purity because the dragonfly “eats from the wind itself”.  For some Native American tribes they represent swiftness and activity, and for the Navajo they symbolize pure water. Dragonflies are a common motif in Zuni pottery; stylized as a double-barred cross, they appear in Hopi rock art and on Pueblo necklaces.

In Europe, dragonflies have often been seen as sinister. Some English vernacular names, such as Devil’s Needle, Adderbolt and Ear Cutter, link them with evil or injury.  The name Horse Stinger comes from the misinformed observation that horses that were kicking and stamping around usually had a few dragonflies hovering around them. Fact remains though, that the dragonflies could well have been helping the horse by eating some of the parasitic insects that were doing the actual ‘horse stinging’. The Welsh call the dragonfly the snake’s servant and think they follow snakes and stitch up their wounds.  A  Romanian folk tale says that the dragonfly was once a horse possessed by the devil.  Swedish folklore holds that the devil uses dragonflies to weigh people’s souls.  The Norwegian name for dragonflies is Øyenstikker (“eye-poker”), and in Portugal they are sometimes called tira-olhos (“eye-snatcher”).   The Southern United States term “snake doctor” refers to a folk belief that dragonflies follow snakes around and stitch them back together if they are injured.

In the United States dragonflies and  damselflies are sought out as a hobby similar to birding and butterflying, known as oding, from the Latin name of the dragonfly order, Odonata. Oding is especially popular in Texas, where 225 different species of odonates have been observed. With care, and with dry fingers, dragonflies can be handled and released by oders, as can be done with butterflies, though it is not encouraged.

Images of dragonflies are common in Art Nouveau, especially in jewelry designs.  They also appear in posters by modern artists such as Maeve Harris .

They have also been used as a decorative motif on fabrics and home furnishings.  Douglas, a British motorcycle manufacturer based in Bristol, named its innovatively designed postwar 350cc flat twin model the Dragonfly. [5] [6]


Dragonfly Lamp, shade designed by Clara Driscoll





American Indian Dragonfly Symbols



Dragonfly migration is one of the most fascinating yet least well-known events in the insect world.  Dragonfly migration has been seen on every continent except Antarctica, but most people are completely unaware of this phenomenon.  The Wandering Glider Dragonfly, riding the monsoon winds, hops from India to east and southern Africa; subsequent generations return by following the continental coastline back to India.  This is a round trip of more than 11,000 miles–nearly twice the maximum distance of the monarch butterfly’s migration.


Two sites to check out for dragonfly migration are:

The Dragonfly Woman,

Migratory Dragonfly Partnership,

Dragonfly8   Dragonfly


o-matsuri no akai dedachi no tombo kana

departing for the festival
all in red



[1] .





[6]  Tiffany Lamp

[7]  Anderson Collection




One thought on “Beautiful Insects

  1. I really liked this detail about the flying beauties around your farm!

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