Dragonflies: Fascinating Jewels on the Wing

Dragonflies: Fascinating Jewels on the Wing

Twelve-spotted Skimmer. Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham

Compleat Naturalist

By Hal and Laura Mahan

This dragonfly came up to me. He was hovering right in front of my face, and I was really
examining him, thinking, How does he see me? I became enlightened. ~Ziggy Marley

One day at the store we were looking out the main window and kept noticing a large, graceful flying insect, a dragonfly, seeming to try to land on top of a car that was parked in front of the building. How strange! There was no logical reason for a dragonfly to land on a parked car. Then we realized that, to this dragonfly, the flat, shiny, dark surface of the car’s top might look like a nice wet pool!

Dragonflies are fascinating and wonderful to observe. They are exquisite flyers, capable of an air speed of 45 miles per hour, with unmatched agility, changing directions in a flash. They are used in traditional medicine in Japan and China, and caught for food in Indonesia. They are symbols of courage, strength and happiness in Japan, but seen as sinister in European folklore.

More than 50 years ago, a high school biology teacher developed a relatively harmless technique for collecting, marking and releasing individual dragonflies for study. This inventive researcher used a child’s slingshot loaded with very fine particles of beach sand to knock a dragonfly out of the air, mid-flight. Good shot! Then the temporarily stunned insect could be retrieved, carefully marked with a small spot of paint on its body, and released. Individual dragonflies, identified with their paint marks, would be watched carefully to try to determine if they ranged over a limited territory and whether they defended that territory.

The easiest way to tell dragonflies and damselflies apart is by looking at the way they hold their wings. Dragonflies at rest hold their wings perpendicular to their bodies, while damselflies (a more delicate insect) hold their wings neatly folded along or above their abdomen.

Dragonflies have been around for a very long time. The fossil record has revealed dragonfly ancestors from 325 million years ago with wingspans of 30 inches!

Dragonflies are aquatic while in their nymph or larval state. They spend 90 to 95 percent of their life cycle in this immature stage, feeding on aquatic insects (including other dragonfly larvae) and sometimes small fish and tadpoles. Adult dragonflies are also effective predators and such skillful fliers that they can catch prey in mid-air, feeding on a variety of insects including mosquitoes, smaller dragonflies and damselflies.

Besides their size and flight, don’t you agree that the most fascinating aspect of dragonflies is their coloration? Many adult dragonflies display bright iridescent or metallic colors that are known as “structural coloration.” This is not produced by pigment, but by microscopically structured surfaces that create reflections of color.

The next time you visit a pond or other body of still water, watch for dragonflies. They are beautiful to look at and fascinating to study.

Recommended Guides

  • Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast
  • Dragonflies Through Binoculars
  • Princeton Field Guides: Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East
  • Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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