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Dragonflies & Damselflies

Have you seen them? Have you really seen them?

You never know what you’re going to fall in love with next when it comes to the beautiful and sophisticated ecological world that surrounds us. I have found love in nature thousands of times, but it is not every day that you fall.

My first fall in nature was enormous, and I am far from recovering: Fungi. At first they tantalized me, with their delicious flavours, and then even more as I learned of their extraordinary roles in ecology and uses in society.

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Second, I fell for salmon. My heart climbed seven storeys while I worked as an interpreter during the annual salmon run. The fish are easy to admire, but I fell in love with their profound abilities and perseverance. I fell for every single caudal peduncle, operculum and enormous jawbone that I saw.

Now? I am curious, wondering if I have found a third love. I can feel the beginnings of sprouting giddiness and tingling thrill at the very thought of them. Yes, that’s right, naturally: Insects. Have you seen them?

As spring sauntered into town and then somehow slipped into summer and even fell into fall, my love for insects metamorphosed into something I did not expect. Insects are incredible! With shields, segments and sheaves, their diversity and design is astounding—you just have to look! Have you really seen them?

As part of my educational work with the Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary, I was taking part in regular net dips in Swan Lake. During these dips we sweep our nets through the water, gently brushing plants and collecting invertebrates. Our scoops are deposited into containers of water in which we can take a closer look at the creatures of the lake.

I was amazed to find an incredible diversity of insects, many of which would one day inhabit the terrestrial environment above the water. I was frequently told “I did not get anything in my scoop,” by students, only to encourage a deeper scan and hear sounds of excitement as they found more and more tiny creatures. Thrilling!

Invertebrates in the lake can be indicative of the lake’s health; we call them bioindicators. Certain species can only survive in healthy waters while others are very tolerant of pollutants. As I was performing my bi-weekly scoop to help monitor the health of the lake, I could feel myself falling for a third time. Dragonflies and Damselflies belong to the order Odonata. They are defined by their slender bodies, two pairs of transparent wings, large compound eyes…and of course, by their epic speed and hunting abilities!

Did you know that dragonflies and damselflies begin life underwater? These insects start as eggs dropped in wet and muddy areas by their mothers. When they hatch, they assume a life underwater as Nymphs. In this stage, you might not recognize them, as they lack their wings and many of their beautiful colours. They have gills and are effective underwater hunters!

Dragonflies and Damselflies have an astounding and admittedly odd adaptation for catching prey underwater. Their lower lip piece, called their labium, can extend up to a third of their body length, shooting out at extraordinary speeds to quickly scoop up unassuming prey (small invertebrates or fish)!

I highly recommend looking up a video of these sophisticated hunters. These nymphs are beautiful and their design is marvelous. Their perfectly packed segmented body is full of whacky and wonderful adaptations, including the ability to quickly propel themselves forward by shooting water out of their behind!

When these insects are mature enough, they prepare to move into their terrestrial stage of life. Some species can live underwater for five whole years before they become adults! The dragonflies and damselflies will crawl out of the water, partially at first, and allow their respiration system to adapt to breathing air! They will then climb onto vegetation or rocks and clamp on tight. Here they will slowly split and crawl out of their larval skin and emerge as an adult dragonfly.

The adults must work hard to pump haemolymph into their wings, causing them to expand and strengthen. With some time to harden their exoskeleton, they are ready to take flight! Adult dragonflies can fly up to 54km per hour and move their four wings individually! This makes them great pilots and impressive hunters. We can thank them for eating plenty of mosquitoes and causing us a few less bites in the summer!

While it began for me with dragonflies and damselflies, it was not long at all before it became insects as a whole. From the hundreds of bee tongues I’ve seen this summer to the stunning colour palettes on leaf hoppers, I have been shocked and delighted. I promptly purchased a beginner macro camera to see them closer—to be able to look at their armour, their eyes of many lenses, their ancestral fluff and their comprehensive hydraulics. I have a lot to learn about insects, but with my newfound love I can promise you one thing: They are worth a closer look—have you seen them?

Join us at the Nature Sanctuary for one of our children, family or adult programs and perhaps you can fall for something new! To see our calendar, register and learn about programs visit swanlake.bc.ca.

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