Just call it "Fire and Fury in a Pollinator Garden."
That would be the firecracker red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata.
They fly into our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., attracted by the lily-padded pond and the all-you-can-eat buffet of flying insects.
They snag their prey in flight--usually a native bee or syprhid fly--and perch on a bamboo stake to eat it.
Table for one, please! No, waiter, I don't need a napkin. Thank you, though.
Native to North America, they are a delight to see and photograph. Sometimes they allow multiple close-up images and that's when we turn into a paparazzi! (To be honest, we'd rather take images of low-flying dragonflies than of high-profile people.)
Their flight reminds us of helicopters. Firecracker red helicopters.
If you've ever thought about the dragonfly being a perfect design for a helicopter, you'd be right.
Check out the website, "Design and the Universe," for its informative piece on "The Dragonfly: The Inspiration for the Helicopter."
"The wings of the dragonfly cannot be folded back on its body. In addition, the way in which the muscles for flight are used in the motion of the wings differs from the rest of insects. Because of these properties, evolutionists claim that dragonflies are "primitive insects."
"In contrast, the flight system of these so-called 'primitive insects' is nothing less than a wonder of design. The world's leading helicopter manufacturer, Sikorsky, finished the design of one of their helicopters by taking the dragonfly as a model.6 IBM, which assisted Sikorsky in this project, started by putting a model of a dragonfly in a computer (IBM 3081). Two thousand special renderings were done on computer in the light of the manoeuvres of the dragonfly in air. Therefore, Sikorsky's model for transporting personnel and artillery was built upon examples derived from dragonflies."
"The body of a dragonfly looks like a helical structure wrapped with metal. Two wings are cross-placed on a body that displays a colour gradation from ice blue to maroon. Because of this structure, the dragonfly is equipped with superb manoeuvrability. No matter at what speed or direction it is already moving, it can immediately stop and start flying in the opposite direction. Alternatively, it can remain suspended in air for the purpose of hunting. At that position, it can move quite swiftly towards its prey. It can accelerate up to a speed that is quite surprising for an insect: 25mph (40km/h), which would be identical to an athlete running 100 metres in the Olympics at 24.4mph (39km/h).
"At this speed, it collides with its prey. The shock of the impact is quite strong. However, the armoury of the dragonfly is both very resistant and very flexible. The flexible structure of its body absorbs the impact of collision. However, the same cannot be said for its prey. The dragonfly's prey would pass out or even be killed by the impact."
"Following the collision, the rear legs of dragonfly take on the role of its most lethal weapons. The legs stretch forward and capture the shocked prey, which is then swiftly dismembered and consumed by powerful jaws."
As for our little male flameskimmer, our firecracker red dragonfly, we watched him ambush prey, unleashing his special brand of fire and fury in a pollinator garden.
Fire and fury in a pollinator garden...
She's in Vacaville, Calif., and the garden she is visiting today is a veritable oasis of blooms: Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and lavender (Lavandula). And it's filled with bees.
That's why she's here.
Just as crooks rob banks because "that's where the money" is, predators hang around pollinator gardeners because "that's where the prey is."
The predator is hungry. Ah, what's that? She glides from her perch, her wings glowing in the morning sunshine. She circles the garden and quickly returns with a pollen-laden bee in her mouth.
She ignores the photographer sitting a few feet from her and begins to eat.
But what bee? What bee is on the dragonfly menu?
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, identified the bee from one photography angle (second photo below): a female sweat bee, genus Halictus.
"But what species?" asked Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
Here's another angle (first photo below), showing the head.
That's all it took. "The bee is a female of Halictus ligatus, based on the head shape, especially the pointed part of the back right side of the head," Thorp said.
Amazing. Who would know that?
Robbin Thorp, that's who.
Robbin Thorp knows bees like we know the way home. World-renowned for his bee expertise, he co-authored of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, and Bumble Bees of North America: An Identification Guide and co-teaches at The Bee Course, an American Museum of Natural History workshop held annually at the Southwestern Research Station, Portal, Ariz. The workshop is geared for conservation biologists, pollination ecologists and other biologists who want to gain greater knowledge of the systematics and biology of bees. This year's workshop is set Aug. 21-31.
Meanwhile, the dragonfly polishes off her meal, gazes at the photographer (What, are you still here? Sorry, I don't share!), and off she goes, zigzagging over the garden.
She will be back. She's punched only one hole of his meal ticket. Many holes--and many bees--remain.
It's the Fourth of July, and amid our celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago on July 4, 1776 and our glorious nation, we celebrate the red, white and blue--the colors of our flag.
But in the insect world, we can also celebrate the red, white and blue:
The red: The firecracker red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata, a common dragonfly of the family Libellulidae, native to western North America. We love to see it perched on a bamboo stake in our pollinator garden.
The white: The delicate, petticoated cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, common throughout much of the world, including North and South America, Europe, Great Britain, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Beauty? Yes. It absolutely glows in the late afternoon sun. Beast? Yes. The caterpillar or larva is a serious pest of our cole crops, including cabbage, kale and mustard.
The blue: The blue spots in the tail of the Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, a common swallowtail butterfly of North America. Its range stretches from much of North America, from British Columbia to North Dakota in the north to Baja California and New Mexico in the south, according to Wikipedia.
We've never been able to capture an image of a flameskimmer, cabbage white butterfly or Western tiger swallowtail in the same photo, but they don't need to be. Individually, their colors are strong and independent, just like our forefathers who signed the Declaration of Independence 241 years ago.
Big Red visited us for four consecutive days.
The red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata, zigged and zagged into our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. and perched on a bamboo stake for five hours at a time.
Occasionally, he'd hunt--lift off and grab a bee or other insect--and return to the stake to eat it.
Meanwhile California scrub jays nesting in our cherry laurel hedge eyed him. Hmm, there's lunch! And there's lunch having lunch!
Big Red knew they were there but paid no attention to them. He was more interested in the pollinators in the catmint.
He didn't seem to mind us. We eased toward him, about five inches from him. He seemed to know we weren't predators, but photographers.
According to Nature's Notebook (Connecting People with Nature to Benefit Our Changing Planet):
"This species occurs in most states in the western half of the United States from Montana to Oregon, south to southern California, east to Texas, and north through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. There are outlying records in Missouri and South Dakota and a disjunct population in Houston, Texas. The species also occurs in northern Mexico (Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Oaxaca, and Sonora)."
"This species is typically found near warm water ponds, warm, slow streams, lakes, ditches, and hot springs- particularly in the northern part of its range. In Idaho, it occurs in high elevation deserts."
We provided the fish pond and the pollinator garden. And the bamboo stakes...
Who doesn't love the red flameskimmer dragonfly, Libellula saturata?
If the Fourth of July had its own insect, it would be the firecracker red flameskimmer. It's so showy and eye-popping red that it almost looks patriotic. Or at least it should be flying over an Independence Day parade while a band plays "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
On a breezy day in the late spring, we can usually count on a flameskimmer or two entering our yard. Of course it helps if you have a pond and a pollinator garden and some bamboo stakes. They hover over our pond, turn the pollinator garden into their dining room, and perch on the stakes to eat their prey.
We managed to capture a few images of this one last weekend as it helicoptered from bamboo stake to bamboo stake. It "posed" against a shade-cloth fence, a pink background of Jupiter's beard, and with a little aperture changing, against a black background.
It stayed for a couple of hours.
More than enough to strike up a band to play "Yankee Doodle Dandy."