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Sonoma County’s amazing dragonflies make beautiful friends for your pond

The Skinny On Dragonflies

1. Dragonflies evolved around 300 million years ago, well before dinosaurs.

2. Dragonflies have huge eyes with 30,000 facets, bringing them detailed information about their surroundings and the insects they eat.

3. You can tell dragonflies from their close cousins, damselflies, by their heavier bodies, and their strong and swift flight. Dragonflies also perch with their wings extended to the side, while damselfly wings are folded together when they rest.

4. Dragonfly myths and legends abound. According to legends of some Native American peoples, they are sometimes thought to be souls of the dead. Many cultures consider dragonflies good luck and a symbol of joy, light, strength and courage. In Ireland, they were imagined to be horses of fairies.

5. In the Victorian era, and again in the Art Nouveau period, jewelry in the shape of dragonflies was popular.

The summer day is warm and the wind is absent. At lakes and other bodies of still water, dragonflies dart here and there, almost too fast to follow with your eyes. They are the messengers of summer, and they can be dazzling with their intricate beauty.

Dragonflies evolved about 300 million years ago, long before even dinosaurs roamed the earth. Dragonfly fossils have shown they had wingspans of up to 2 feet. The ones we see today have wingspans from 2 to 5 inches. They are a gift to humans, as they eat many insects, including mosquitoes.

Dragonflies and their close cousins, damselflies, are mating now. Don’t blink, as mating is over in a flash. Most dragonflies mate in the air, and it’s quite an aerobatic feat. The female’s eggs are fertilized only as she lays them. She will lay her eggs on a plant in the water, though some species lay theirs in the water directly.

When her eggs hatch, dragonfly nymphs emerge and begin the aquatic portion of their life. They will live in water, breathing through gills, for months, or even one to two years, depending on the species. These nymphs are voracious, eating just about everything that lives in the water, including each other.

The nymphs are rather alien-looking, and they are lightning fast as they attack their prey. For a small, brown aquatic insect, they are amazing predators.

Over the months they spend in the water, they will molt about twelve times, shedding their outer skin. In late spring, or early summer, they will emerge from their watery home, and climb up the stem of a plant.

The nymphs’ exoskeletons then crack open, and fully-grown dragonflies emerge, with wings tucked close to their bodies. The skin left behind is called exuvia, and it can sometimes be found stuck on stems long after the dragonfly has flown away.

As dragonflies begin their second phase of life, they slowly extend their four wings to allow them to dry in the air. As plain as they were in their nymph stage, their metamorphosis is a wonder to behold, as they look like living jewels.

It’s no wonder that dragonflies are seen by many, including some Native Americans, to be a symbol of resurrection and renewal.

Dragonflies lifespans as winged creatures are only several weeks to two months long. Late summer is the perfect time to see them.

If you spend some time watching them, you will be amazed at their flying ability. Because they have four wings that can operate independently of each other, they can fly up, down, sideways, backwards, and even hover like a helicopter. Dragonflies need to be excellent fliers as they eat by capturing insects in mid-air.

If you look at a dragonfly’s head, you will see that it is mostly comprised of their massive, multifaceted eyes. And, yes, they have excellent eyesight. In fact, scientists have discovered dragonflies can even see many more colors than humans.

Humans have tri-chromatic vision, meaning that we see colors as a combination of red, blue and green. This is due to three different types of proteins in our eyes called opsins. When twelve species of dragonflies were studied, each one had no fewer than eleven opsins, and some many more. Imagine what a rainbow looks like to a dragonfly.

The Skinny On Dragonflies

1. Dragonflies evolved around 300 million years ago, well before dinosaurs.

2. Dragonflies have huge eyes with 30,000 facets, bringing them detailed information about their surroundings and the insects they eat.

3. You can tell dragonflies from their close cousins, damselflies, by their heavier bodies, and their strong and swift flight. Dragonflies also perch with their wings extended to the side, while damselfly wings are folded together when they rest.

4. Dragonfly myths and legends abound. According to legends of some Native American peoples, they are sometimes thought to be souls of the dead. Many cultures consider dragonflies good luck and a symbol of joy, light, strength and courage. In Ireland, they were imagined to be horses of fairies.

5. In the Victorian era, and again in the Art Nouveau period, jewelry in the shape of dragonflies was popular.

And as if that wasn’t advantage enough, they can see in every direction except directly behind them. Dragonflies have been described as “stealth fighter jets,” for their ability to snatch their preferred insect in flight, quickly and efficiently. They can eat hundreds of mosquitoes a day.

Once they have their prey, they show why they are in the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones.” Their jaws bite down on their prey, all while flying. Dragonflies, fortunately, don’t bite humans.

One of the easiest dragonflies to spot is the bright-orange flame skimmer. They can be seen zipping over ponds, lakes, slow streams, river pools, irrigation ditches, and by springs.

Identifying the dragonflies and damselflies you are most likely to see here in Sonoma County is made easy by Kathy Bigg’s “Common Dragonflies of California, a Beginner’s Pocket Guide,” available at your favorite bookstore.

There are several dragonflies that migrate from Canada and all the way south to Mexico and the West Indies in summer and early fall, flying down both coasts and through the Midwest. One of these migrants is the larger common green darner. John Mika of Gualala has a lake on his property where he sees these migrants arrive, rest and feed, and then continue their journey.

Surprisingly, little is known about North American dragonfly migration, including their flight pathways, and how far southward their overwintering grounds extend. The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership, MDP, has been formed to learn more about their movements. If you see migrating dragonflies, here’s a chance to participate in citizen science. Visit their website at migratorydragonflypartnership.org.

Dragonflies are threatened by loss of habitat and pollution caused by humans.

Dragonfly sanctuary ponds have been created in the United Kingdom, Japan and here in the United States in New Mexico. Residents can lend a helping hand by adding a pond in your garden. Your reward could be sightings of some of the most colorful and beautiful creatures in the world.

Jeanne A. Jackson is the author of Mendonoma Sightings Throughout the Year, a month-by-month look at nature on the Sonoma/Mendocino Coasts. Jackson regularly posts nature photos of the coast on her website at mendonomasightings.com.