Saturday, July 23, 2011

DRAGON FLIES: Winged Jewels in the Garden.

Freddi Steele

All that glitters is rare in the garden. A shimmering spring frost can encase hardy and delicate plants alike, a greeting from Mother Nature that the humidity is up but the temperature is below freezing. Glistening dew may welcome us when we get our morning paper or walk the dog, hinting of the monsoon to come. Silken threads of spiderlings, ballooning on the breeze across the yard, may glint in the sun. Dazzle is unusual where we exercise our green thumbs. As gardeners, though, we know there are always exceptions. Enter the insect world’s largest sparklers – dragonflies and their kin.
Included in the insect order Odonata (“toothed ones”), dragonflies and their relatives, damselflies, are the biggest insects found to date in the fossil record. Discovered in sediments in Europe and the American Midwest, wingspans of two and a half feet were common for these creatures, which coexisted with yard-long ancient scorpions during the Carboniferous period ending 299 million years ago. Modern dragonflies have wingspans of up to four inches. Found worldwide and normally associated with warmer climates, dragonflies have been sighted north of the Arctic Circle since 2007, possibly due to global warming. Anecdotally dragonflies are believed to fly 60 miles per hour (mph); they have been more accurately clocked up to 34 mph. There are approximately 447 dragonfly species in the US, with 63 species identified in Coconino County (
Dragonflies and damselflies usually share airspace over freshwater ponds, lakes, and streams, though they can be spotted far from water. Dragonflies are the larger of the two, with two pairs of wings attached perpendicularly to their bodies and looking like miniature “high-wing” planes. Damselflies are smaller, daintier, with wings that lie parallel to their bodies when not in use. Both dine on gnats, flies, mosquitos, spiders, and mites, though feasting on our favorite pollinators (bees, moths and butterflies) is not unusual.
As insects, dragonflies have an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and six jointed appendages. Their legs are used for clinging to vegetation and grasping prey and arn’t effective for walking. Females lay eggs near or in water, which hatch out into nymphs and mature into adult dragonflies. Two anatomical features distinguish them from other insects. The first is their huge eyes, made up of thousands of simple eyes, enabling them to see almost 360 degrees and making them excellent hunters. The second is an extendable jaw or mask, equipped with claws, which shoots out like the deadly lower mandible of the extraterrestrial creature in “Alien”, grabbing prey in an inescapable grip. Dragonflies and damselflies occur in an array of colors: blue, green, black, white, red and orange, with females being less colorful. Dragonflies and damselflies do not sting or bite, but their nymphs may.
Intrigued by these winged gems? Try creating a dragonfly garden. All it takes is a flat water container (like a birdbath), some tall grasses or bulbs (like irises), and sun, some of the same elements used to attract birds. For more information on how to design a dragonfly-friendly space, see HGTV’s website Can’t put in a dragonfly plot? Visit these aerial artists in or near Flagstaff: Elderberry Pond in the Arboretum at Flagstaff (opens April 1st for the season); Francis Short Pond near Thorpe Park; Kachina Wetlands in Kachina Village. “Dragonfly season” is between May and November.
My fascination with dragonflies began in the summer of 2000 while training for the Tucson Marathon. At the time I lived and worked at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. On early mornings I would run the seven miles to Hermit’s Rest. Several times I was suddenly surrounded by a swarm of Flame Skimmers, large dragonflies with red and clear wings and red bodies. They would dart around me for about a minute, and then while most would zip away, one or two would fly in formation beside me at the edge of the road – my personal “Dawn Patrol”. After several minutes, they would disappear into the roadside cliff rose, chasing honey bees. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear they were extraterrestrials...

(Freddi Steele is a Master Gardener and a former naturalist with the National Park Service. Dana Prom Smith edits GARDENING ETCETERA. His email address is

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