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Nature Notes: Dragonflies are marvels in the skies

Never did an insect better deserve its name than the dragonfly.

Equipped with four highly maneuverable wings, a head that’s nearly all eyes, a set of strong mandibles, designed to bite through the outer covering or exoskeleton of insects, and six legs, employed to snatch prey out of the air, dragonflies quite literally rule the skies over our gardens, thankfully, devouring many of our winged pests and not bothering us.

In fact, if I were a mosquito, a favorite food item of dragonflies, and I saw one of these flying T. rexes come after me, I would be terrified. Here is why.

“When hunting, dragonflies catch prey with their feet, tear off the prey’s wings with their sharp jaws so it can’t escape, and scarf the bug down, all without needing to land,” wrote wildlife writer Jaymi Heimbuch.

Flying ants, termites, midges, bees, and butterflies also fuel this insect’s voracious appetite, Heimbuch said.

Dragonflies evolved 300 million years ago, when parts of the planet were covered in dense, steamy swamps and forest, and these flying monsters had wingspans (can you imagine) of 2-5 feet long. Now, thank God, they have wingspans of 2-5 inches. But through natural selection and over eons of time, these bizarre insects have perfected their flying abilities.

For instance, dragonflies can fly straight up, down, sideways, forwards, backwards, and hover. And some species can zoom up to 18 mph, a staggering speed for an insect. By comparison, a honeybee can fly 15-20 mph, and the ruby-throated hummingbird, another flying wonder and one of the tiniest birds in the world, tops out at 25 mph.

There are three stages in the life cycle of a dragonfly: an egg, deposited in the water by the female; a larvae or nymph, and finally, an adult. Interestingly, the larvae are just as ferocious underwater as the adults are in the air.

“They have a hyper-thrust mechanism to give them the extra speed-boost when they are pursuing a critter…” notes the website learnaboutnature.com. “For a quick burst of speed, they eject water from their anal opening to act like a jet propulsion system, which makes it a near impossible feat for the nymph dragonfly’s prey to even think of an escape,” they add.

Even though birds are my passion, I find the world of insects equally engrossing. The silver lining in the life history of the dragonfly is that they help control pests.

Bill Hobbs lives in Stonington. He can be reached at whobbs246@gmail.com.

Editor's Note: This corrects an earlier version.

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