Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

DragonflyI spy a dragon with the probing vision of my binoculars. A dragonfly to be exact, though no less fierce than the creatures of fantasy. This one perches with its six barbed legs on a demur plant in a patch of sunlight and makes short forays out and back. Its wings are shiny and mostly clear like a cellophane wrapper in the sun. Closer to me I focus on a bee flying inches above the ground from dead leaf to deaf leaf, careful to avoid a looming cob web that stretches between the stalks of two may apples. The tiny world of the bee fills my entire field of vision and I feel as though I am flying right along beside it. Closer still, ants forage and a spider the size of a pin head adroitly maneuvers the craggy, broken landscape of leaf litter. A bumble bee arrives to hover curiously at my waist, its wings a humming blur, its downdraft shaking a dandelion leaf that grows beside my hip. Returning focus to the dragonfly, I see it has moved from its previous perch, which is now in shade, to a new one several feet away and resumed its display. I've caught it in the act of something purposeful, surely. It has come down a long road to be here on that branch.

Its journey began when its mother skimmed across the surface of a pond dipping her abdomen in the water to wash her excreted eggs away, or bored her ovipositor into the stem of a plant or into submerged muck to protect the egg from the hungry mouths of fish.

Hatching as a protolarva in a small sack of fluid it bumped, jostled and otherwise moved itself into the water (unless hatching there to begin with) and broke out of the sack as a hunter. Ambushing aquatic insects and even small fish for one to three years, it utilized a hinged, toothed lower lip to catch its food. The lip was able to extend out up to one third the length of the larva's body and seize prey with lightning speed. Each successive molt saw it grow larger until it was ready to crawl from the waters onto a rock or stem to begin its final molt, cracking and crawling out of its skin one more time to emerge as an adult

Now it is here, looking at the world through thirty thousand pupils that allow it to see almost three-hundred and sixty degrees, up and down, side to side. Though it cannot hear or smell, by sight it will relentlessly catch every insect it can on the wing, eating most of them in flight. It will mate, lay eggs if female, and within a matter of weeks, months at best, be consumed by a hungry bird, spider, turtle or fellow dragonfly. It circles mysteriously out and back again to the perch.

When night falls it will cease flying altogether, a characteristic of dragonflies shared by few insects—others thrive after sun down. In closing darkness lambent yellow flashes catch my eye, glowing for a moment and fading. More appear the darker it gets. Fireflies! Males are signaling to elicit responses in kind from females, to find them and mate. Night fully arrived, the trees sparkle top to bottom with the air-bourn beetles like blinking sky scrapers. Different species prefer different heights, each species with its own characteristic flash pattern. The display becomes so intense it is like witnessing strobe lights or fireworks—but all in silence—and I watch amazed. This is summer: days of dragons, nights of luminous fire.

References:
Mead, K. 2003. Dragonflies of the North Woods. Duluth, MN: Kollath-Stensaas Publishing.
Mitchell, F., and J. Lasswell. 2005. A Dazzle of Dragonflies. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Waldbauer, G. 2003. What Good are Bugs? Insects and the Web of Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wangberg, J. K. 2001. Six-legged Sex: The Erotic Lives of Bugs. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.