The glittery, seemingly harmless dragonfly that we find swooping through the summer air may not seem to live up to it’s ferocious name, but that wasn’t always the case.
Dragonflies the size of seagulls once ruled the air. That was 300 million years ago.
Fortunately, today’s dragonflies are much smaller and not capable of catching prey the size of a squirrel. However, they put a dent in the mosquito population and may occasionally pinch the skin of a human.
“They are tremendous hunters of mosquitoes. They catch their prey on the wings of other insects,” said Anne Donnelly, dragonfly surveyor for the New York State Natural Heritage Program. “They don’t bite or sting, although I was showing kids how to handle them saying they don’t bite, and I got bit.”
Donnelly said the pinch was less than that of a horsefly and didn’t even leave a mark.
“But, those kids certainly called me on it,” Donnelly laughed.
Despite Donnelly’s small pinch, she is a great admirer of dragonflies and it’s cousin, the damselfly. She will share her enthusiasm at what she calls a field trip at the Landis Arboretum in Esperance Saturday, July 19.
“We just went kayaking in the Adirondacks over the weekend at a small Adirondack lake. I was sitting in my kayak and one of my favorites, an Ebony Jewelwing, one of the larger damselflies with wings that are jet black and a body that is a brilliant iridescent green … they were quite prevalent. I was just thrilled,” Donnelly said.
In fact, if you spend time by a lake or stream during the month of July, Donnelly said you are likely to spot one of these glittery insects.
“The different species cycle through the summer. This is peak season, the end of July. There is a different cast of characters in the fall,” she said. “The biggest and most spectacular is the Common Green Darner. It has a bright green thorax and is one of the largest of the dragonflies.”
Donnelly is a retired biology professor at SUNY Cobleskill and regularly runs the field trips at the arboretum.
“For me, life is a field trip. It’s just a lot of fun. Everywhere you go is fun,” she said.
Donnelly began sharing her joy of dragonflies and damselflies in 2008.
“I retired and got very involved at the arboretum and had a chance to participate in the New York State National Heritage Survey project. I was trained for the dragonfly and damselfly portion of it,” she said.
At the field trips, Donnelly said she begins with explaining the difference between dragonflies and damselflies, talks about their life cycle and their anatomy.
“And then, we go out all around the arboretum. We have several different ponds and habitats. I have to tell you, I am not very good at catching dragonflies and damselflies, so I love having kids in my classes. They are so quick and competitive,” Donnelly said.
She adds that one of the ways she enjoys dragonflies and damselflies is with binoculars.
“Many of the new binoculars have quite a short focus, so even someone who can’t net them can really enjoy them, too,” she said.
The Landis Arboretum is a public garden comprising hundreds of acres overlooking historic Schoharie Valley.
“In the arboretum, we have several different species of damselflies,” said Donnelly. “Sometimes, there are seven to 10 different species at the pond.”
On the field trip, you will learn what to look for, how to tell dragonflies from damselflies and how to capture and identify the insects using a field guide. Donnelly said dragonflies and damselflies look very similar, but the easiest way to tell the difference is to watch them at rest. A dragonfly holds its wings horizontally, while damselflies rest their wings behind them.
“They have the same general body, but they are weaker fliers and they fold their wings rather than hold them stiffly out to the side all the time,” she said.
Donnelly said people of all ages are just intrigued by these creatures.
“My classes have white hair and little kids,” she laughed. “A lot of grandparents bring their grandchildren. It’s wonderful to have the mix, and the kids are great participators.”
See these magnificent insects up close on Donnelley’s field trip, “Dragonflies and Damselflies” on Saturday, July 19, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Landis Arboretum, 174 Lape Road in Esperance. For more information, call 875-6935 or visit landisarboretum.org.