Invasion Of The Dragonflies
While it wasn’t quite on the level of a biblical plague of locusts, the recent invasion of the region by dragonflies migrating to areas further south was striking to residents. Their numbers were so high, they actually showed up as clouds on weather radar – for a link to that story, see this story on our website.
To find out more for myself, I turned to an old friend.
This is Stephen Hiner. I worked with aquatic insects at Virginia Tech for 34 years, and then I retired back to Mountain Grove – I guess a trained Hokie in the world of insects.”
“The dragonfly is an aquatic insect, so that means it spends at least part of its life cycle in the aquatic environment, in this case, a freshwater environment. This particular one that we see migrating, its favorite habitat is standing water – you know, ponds, lakes, marshes, human made reservoirs, any kind of standing water – you don’t find this one that’s migrating in flowing waters too much.”
“They are very ancient insects. There was a dragonfly in Roman folklore – it was a name of a particular horse that was ridden by a Roman saint. And then there’s some Swedish folklore out there, and then there’s some Native American folklore. The Native Americans paid close attention to this particular critter. Depending on the tribe, they had all kinds of beliefs about dragonflies, you know, it meant speed, and happiness, and purity of water.”
“And for those of you that have gotten close to the dragonfly adult, I mean, with a little bit of imagination, you can imagine that they do look like a dragon. Again folklore thought they were just tiny dragons, resembled tiny dragons, but were too small to breathe fire.”
A listener informed me that they were often referred to as “snake doctors”, and Stephen touched on this and other colorful labels.
“We’ll address your snake doctor first. The snake doctor, the name came from people would see them and they would think that they could cure snakes. Quite often when you would see dragonflies, you might see a snake probably because of the environment where the dragonflies and snakes are located. And they thought that the dragonflies could cure any snake illness, you know, could actually sew up a snake if the snake became injured, you know. And the “snake servant” was another common name – the dragonflies would warn snakes of any approaching danger, and then there’s all kinds of other common names out there. One that I really liked is “”darning needle, or “devil’s darning needle.” And that’s a really neat name for these dragonflies because they do fly back and forth over a particular area, and it kind of looks like a needle would be moving when you were darning a piece of cloth, like darning your socks, your needle would run, move back and forth, and that’s kind of how these adult dragonflies move over a particular area. And there’s “horse doctors” and “horse stingers,” you know, and “mosquito hawk,” and “mule killer,”” bee butcher.”
For an insect with such fearful sounding names, it is actually harmless, and even beneficial.
“They do not bite, they don’t bother you, they don’t bother humans or anything like that. They feed exclusively on other insects in the adult stage, particularly mosquitoes, flies, ants, flying ants, flying termites, and even butterflies. They’ll capture butterflies, which are sometimes bigger than they are and consume those.”
“The scientific name of this one that we’re seeing here the genus is anax. And then the species is junius. It’s got a common name itself, it’s called the common green darner.”
I asked Stephen why he felt the numbers were so large this year.
“I always see a few, but I certainly don’t see this many that we’ve seen this year. And that probably has something to do with the wet year that we had last year all up and down the East Coast. So you know, you think of every little marsh every little pond, every little depression that can accumulate water may have been a potential standing water habitat. I’m sure the wet year that we had last year and then the early wet year that we’ve had this year has something to do with their great numbers. And I will tell you, the federal government and the state government has not released them. That’s one of the rumors I’ve heard recently.”