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Dragons and Damsels (with slideshow)

Photos and story by Tom Hodgson

More than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies call Michigan home.

All begin their lives as aquatic nymphs (larvae) inhabiting area lakes and streams, where they are an important part of the food chain. Most species spend two to three years as aquatic nymphs before becoming adults. The adults live from a few weeks to a few months. They spend the summer feeding and mating. They lay eggs in local ponds, lakes and streams before succumbing to predators or cold weather. A few species even migrate south to escape our winters.

Dragons and damsels both belong to the order Odonata, but have distinct differences. Dragonflies are strongly built, rapid fliers that hold their wings flat when perched.  Damselflies are more slightly build, weak fliers. Most hold their wings over their backs when perched. As adults, both are predators of other insects. The dragonflies are also called mosquito hawks as they will gorge on mosquitos when they are abundant. A single dragonfly can eat its own weight in insects in 30 minutes. They are fearsome predators. Some have even been known to take down hummingbirds.

They have powerful jaws that can quickly consume their catch. The jaws are for eating, not catching. That function is reserved for the legs which are often covered with spines that can form a “catching basket.” The captured insect is then transferred to the mouth for consumption. Fortunately, dragonflies do not attack humans, although if you stand still long enough, they may use your hat as a convenient hunting perch.

As nymphs; dragonflies and damselflies eat mosquito larvae, other aquatic insects, worms and even an occasional tadpole or small fish. Once they reach full size, they crawl out of the water onto emerging vegetation, molt (shed their exoskeletons) and emerge as flying adults. These transformations usually occur in the early morning, so by afternoon their wings are hardened and ready for flight. Their empty exoskeletons can be found clinging to emerging plants and objects along lake shores in May and June.

There are some species of dragonflies that are easy to recognize, but many are so similar that they can only be identified by close examination after capture. They are masterful fliers, so catching them in a net can be a real challenge. A camera with a telephoto lens is my weapon of choice. A good pair of close focusing binoculars can also be very helpful.

The largest are over 3 inches long, but many are much smaller. All have excellent eyesight and are very wary, making them a challenge to get close to.

I have developed several power point nature programs over the years. My next one was to be about dragonflies and damselflies. That effort was interrupted, however, by the arrival of five grandchildren. So, for now I will just have to share some of the images I have accumulated in this photo array.

Those who would like to learn more might consider purchasing Dragonflies of the North Woods by Kurt Mead.

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7 thoughts on “Dragons and Damsels (with slideshow)”

  1. I have seen so many different types of dragonflies this summer from Ann Arbor to Waterloo and Jackson as I travel and stay in different locations – truly beautiful! Thanks for the article and slideshow!

  2. Another well done article. Thank you!
    As kids, the local myth was that dragonflies will sew your ears closed so you can’t hear your Mom calling, hence were called “ear darners” by us.

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