I usually can't get within 25 yards of a dragonfly.
Not so in our back yard.
A flame skimmer or firecracker skimmer (Libellula saturata) has apparently decided that this is where he wants to be.
Last Saturday, for nine hours, he perched on a six-foot-high bamboo stake, leaving only for a few seconds at a time to snag a flying insect before returning to eat his prey.
The flame skimmer, about a 2.5-inch Odonata, looks prehistoric. In fact, according to a UC Berkeley website, "The oldest recognizable fossils of the group (Odonata) belong to the Protodonata, an ancestral group that is now extinct. The earliest fossils so far discovered come from Upper Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) sediments in Europe formed about 325 million years ago. Like modern-day dragonflies, the Protodonata were fast-flying with spiny legs that may have assisted in capturing prey; their wingspan was up to 75 centimeters (30 inches). The group went extinct in the Triassic, about the time that dinosaurs began to appear."
Meanwhile, back in our yard (325 million years into the future), Big Red kept snagging insects and flying back to his six-foot-high perch to eat them. Then occasionally he'd claim a five-foot-high bamboo stake. Too much high rise? A little acrophobia?
At first I kept my distance, hoping I wouldn't frighten him. However, he just looked at me as if I were part of the permanent landscape. Camera movement didn't faze him. After capturing multiple images from every angle possible, I thrust the macro lens about an inch away from his head. He did not move.
Am I a dragonfly whisperer or just lucky?
The flame skimmer prefers a habitat of warm water ponds, slow streams or hot springs. We have a fish pond, a pool and a birdbath in our yard, so I guess that's why he hangs out here.
And we have the perfect perches--bamboo stakes. They're meant to stake our tomato plants but now they're "dragonfly sticks."
We suspect Big Red won't last long. A Mama scrub jay is nesting in our shrubbery and when her babies chirp for food, off she flies in search of a tasty morsel. Mama Bird chased a bright orange gulf fritillary butterfly (missed!) and now, I expect, she'll go after Big Red.
It's a bug-eat-bug world out there, and sometimes it's a bird-eat-bug world when you don't want it to be.
If you're around creeks, ponds and irrigation ditches, watch for the dragonflies.
We spotted scores of variegated meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum) last Sunday along an irrigation ditch bordering a sunflower field in Winters, Calif.
Like helicopters, they hovered, soared, dropped, sped up and slowed down. Dragonflies can reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour, according to an article, "Chasing Dragons," in the current edition of Audubon.
Written by Jill U. Adams, the article details the art of watching dragonflies, and how this is becoming a passion like birdwatching.
Entomologists call dragonflies "odes," after their order, Odonata. They're also called "dragons."
"Dating back more than 250 million years, odes were around long before the dinosaurs appeared," Adams wrote.
"Odes are easy enough to find at a pond or stream around mid-morning, after the sun has warmed the air. They fly and perch, hunt and mate, from spring until fall."
She quotes dragonfly expert Larry Federman, education coordinator for the three Audubon New York sanctuaries, as saying: "Once you start watching dragonflies, you can't help but notice how amazing they are. They fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, zip forward and backward, pivot in a flash and hover with ease. They prey on live insects in midair, snapping up small bugs with their mouths or grabbing larger ones with their legs, then perching to devour them."
In Winters, we watched their mating rituals. Their bodies hooked together, their double set of wings glittering like precious jewels, they dazzled us with their maneuvers, speed and beauty. So fast, so very fast. (But things are not what they seem; be sure to read National Geographic's piece on the dragonfly mating game.)
What's spectacular about the Audubon feature is a row of 16 dragonfly abdomens lined up like arrowheads or surfboards.
And yes, among the 16 abdomens: the variegated meadowhawk.
It's not as striking as the flame skimmer (that one is firecracker red!), but its coloration is sure to please.
Up close and personal, those blue damselflies (suborder Zygoptera, order Odonata) look prehistoric.
Fact is, they were here before the dinosaurs.
These needlelike insects add an iridescent presence as they fly awkwardy over our fish pond, catching prey. In the early morning, they land in our nectarine tree. They're not there to pick nectarines. They're warming their flight muscles.
Their brilliant colors draw us to them. But their huge compound eyes quickly notice us and off they go.
Gotta love those dragonflies in the family Libellulidae.
The Thunderbirds of the insect world, they perform amazing aerial maneuvers as they skim over water, catching mosquitoes, knats, flies and other undesirables on the wing.
But oh--occasionally they nail a pollinator.
A red flame skimmer (Libellula saturata) skimmed over our fish pond and pool last Saturday and picked on the pollinators. Well, at least one pollinator.
It grabbed a female sweat bee, of the genus Halictus, probably H. tripartitus (as identified by native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, and Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis).
Yes, they can even identify a mangled sweat bee in the mouth of a dragonfly.
And no sweat bee.
Some folks wear their heart on their sleeve.
Others wear a dragonfly on their chest.
As part of its public outreach education program and to showcase the world of insects, the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the
The t-shirt, designed by entomology doctoral candidate Fran Keller, features the white-belted ringtail, also known as a gomphid dragonfly, from the family Gomphidae.
UC Davis undergraduate student William Yuen, a part-time employee at the Bohart, traced the insect from a photo taken by
The dragonfly also appears on the Bohart’s “California Dragonfly Poster,” the work of Keller and Kareofelas.
“William is an excellent artist, a brilliant student, a hard worker and has worked in the museum for two years,” said Keller. “I wanted to immortalize him and his talent and for his contributions to the museum.”
“This drawing is so precise you could identify this dragonfly by its wing venation,” Keller said. The insect order (Odonata), family, species name and common name appear beneath the wing.
Keller said more than 5000 species of dragonflies exist worldwide. “Dragonflies don’t harm people; they don’t bite or sting,” she said.
What else about dragonflies?
- Female dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water.
- They beat their wings about 30 beats per second (bps), compared to a honey bee’s 300 bps
- In both their larval and adult stages, dragonflies eat mosquitoes. The larvae eat mosquito nymphs and other insects. As adults, they grab mosquitoes and other insects in mid-air.
Proceeds will benefit the Bohart’s insect outreach education program. The museum, directed by entomologist Lynn Kimsey, chair of the Department of Entomology, is home to more than seven million specimens.
For more information, see http://bohart.ucdavis.edu/ or contact the museum at (530) 752-0493.