Of the 99 species of dragonflies identified as living in Orange County, and the 5,860 known in the world, I can identify three with some certainty.
Thanks to Ranger Greg Dodge, my newfound friend at the Durham Museum of Life and Science, I now know the diminutive eastern amberwing by its delicate orange-tinged transparent wings, the slaty skimmer with its large blue-black monochromatic body, and the blue dasher from its distinct black-tipped blue abdomen, yellow and brown striped thorax and green eyes.
I think I saw all that dasher detail on about the 10th go-round under Ranger Gregs patient tutelage.
Spending time recently at the edge of my home pond on Blackwood Mountain, the Alamance County lake house of friends, and the pond at the Life and Science Museum, I went from simple visual admiration of these darting aerial jewels to a newfound fascination with their variety, behavior and place in different cultures.
But identifying more than those three species, even with the help of binoculars, my simple laminated field guide and other equally curious friends, now seems a challenge. I was a mediocre birder at best in my brief bird-watching period, reaching a life list of about 250. I wonder if Ill fare much better identifying these much smaller creatures who dont even sing.
In casual observation of these ubiquitous flyers, I was always intrigued by the unusual perching of some species that set their wings down in a measured sequence of three beats. That and their occasionally observed midair mating acrobatics were all I knew.
As I spent more time at the edge of the Heartwood pond this summer, I saw the blue iridescent abdomens of some, the black and white spotted shimmering wings of others and a general blur of dragonfly activity crammed along the shoreline. I learned they devour mosquitoes and other insect pests and can fly forward, backward, up, down and sideways. It was time to know more.
There is much more, and the deep interest is not just that of professional entomologists.
A huge coterie of amateurs, clubs, government agencies and universities maintains online life lists and shares photographs and commentary about the ancient order Odonata and its 11 families spread all across the world.
Who wouldnt be intrigued with species names like sparkling jewel wing, smoky ruby spot or powered dancer?
The largest fossil of a dragonfly, with a 30-inch wingspan, dates from 250 million years ago (true at least for the 60 percent of Americans who believe the Earth is actually more than 10,000 years old). And in 2011 three new species were added from one tiny Singapore swamp forest preserve.Cultural meanings
Culturally, the dragonfly occupies a wide berth. In Japan, it is a symbol of courage, strength and happiness, and often appears in art and literature, especially haiku. One of Japans ancient historical names Akitsushima literally meant Dragonfly Islands. This is attributed to a legend in which Japans mythical founder, Emperor Jinmu, was bitten by a mosquito, which was then promptly eaten by a dragonfly.
Western cultures dragonfly myths were not so kind or reverent, referring to them as the devils darning needle and telling children that if they lied, a dragonfly would sew their lips shut.
A Romanian folk tale says that the dragonfly was once a horse possessed by the devil. Swedish folklore holds that the devil uses dragonflies to weigh peoples souls. The Norwegian name for dragonflies literally means eye-poker.
The Southern United States term snake doctor refers to a folk belief that dragonflies follow snakes around and stitch them back together if they are injured.
For some Native American tribes they represent swiftness and activity. For the Navajo they symbolize pure water. In Zuni and Hopi Indian art they are represented simply as a long line with two crossed lines. Found on clothing
Many original Tiffany lamps feature dragonflies. I have a favorite dragonfly-covered shirt my brother brought me from Australia. They have also been used in traditional medicine in Japan and China. In Indonesia they are fried in oil and consumed as a delicacy. My wife is fascinated with their appearance and mythology, caring not a whit for distinctions between dashers, darners, clubtails, skimmers and spiketails. Hunting dragonflies
With encouragement of Ranger Greg who said, I cant understand why everyone doesnt want to know and my deepening curiosity about my own backyard and astonishment about the complexity of life forms and life cycles of the varied species of dragonflies and their close cousins, the damselflies, perhaps there will be time for a closer look that may involve a butterfly net.
I understand one can capture and release dragonflies relatively unharmed. Maybe youll see me, a grown man, flailing with his net along the shores of a pond near you soon. Try not to laugh and point, but instead recite this dragonfly haiku from an ancient but unknown Japanese poet:
Dance O dragonflies
In your world
of the setting sun.