Photo by Kathy Kinsey
August 29, 2014
By Kathy Kinsey
Over the river and through the woods, it’s off to the garden I go….a bugger extraordinaire, the dragonfly is to the insect world what the hummingbird is to the bird world because the hummingbird will eat some insects but they are mostly nectar feeders. Both have flight patterns that are unrivaled – they can turn on a dime and have a love of bugs that makes both of them a welcomed sight in my yard. Dragonflies come in an endless array of colors – from shades of green to the one with the black and white wings. Some small and some large but no finer insect can be found.
Have you ever just sat and watched a dragonfly? Of all the insects on this planet, the dragonfly, also known to some as pond or mosquito hawk, is number one in my book. It is not only beautiful to watch, it will eat the bugs that cause us all problems of one kind or another. And though it too will bite, it is not venomous to humans and will only bite if aggravated. This is something I found out when we rescued one from deer netting but it was worth the bite. The netting came down and the dragonfly flew off! I would have hated to lose such a beautiful insect that does me so much good – an insect with lacey wings and eyes made of precious jewels.
Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the Odonata family with dragonflies being the larger of the two. While resting, dragonflies hold their wings flat out from their bodies, affording any picture taking enthusiast a worthwhile shot. I have bamboo stakes all throughout my garden for them to rest on. One was even so gracious to allow me to take several pictures until I snapped the one I wanted. He nodded his head as if to ask if I was done, I thanked him and left him resting on the bamboo stake near the sprinkler I had on as they love to fly through the water just as much as the birds do. There are about 5,900 species of dragonflies that inhabit the world and I am glad some have called my garden home this summer. Thanks to them, I feel I have fewer annoying bugs around my yard.
They have excellent eyesight and with an eye that big, they should! Aerial agility allows them to zoom in on their prey and catch and consume a lot of insects smaller than they are. With their two wings, speeds of 20 miles per hour are not unheard of. They can even fly backwards and hover up to a minute and though the hummingbirds may fly faster, dragonflies have such a grace about them as they buzz about catching all those insects. They never really seem to be in any hurry to get to where they are going so you have plenty of opportunities to watch them. And there is a way to keep them happy in your very own yard.
They like water! Ponds, preferably without fish, provide a place for them to lay their eggs, a habitat for their aquatic larvae and a spot for them to catch their food. This is also a great area for you to place some bamboo stakes so they have places to rest. Vegetation in the pond is key so the females can lay their eggs on the leaves. Males will land on the vegetation around the pond while looking for a mate and it also provides a place for them to warm up in the sun and a place to cool down should they get too warm. There are several great aquatic plants that you can place in and around your pond. Any of the ones you choose will work for them as they are not concerned with what plants you have, just so you have some! I have even found them resting on the little rocks I have in the middle of my birdbaths as well.
Don’t keep the pond area too clean for you may disturb the area where they have laid their eggs. Let some leaves accumulate in the bottom of the pond so the nymphs will have a place to hide from any predators that may visit the pond. The plants in the ponds will also aid in their metamorphosis as the nymphs will climb out of the pond on one of the plants, shed their larval skin and will then emerge as a winged adult. Stay clear of any insecticides around the pond, either on the plants or on the ground as this may leach into the pond killing the nymphs and or larvae. I have found that soapy water will take out any of the unwanted insects I come across and it will be much safer for you and the environment. And besides, certain insecticides will harm the beneficial insects that dine on all of these pesky insects that live amongst us. But the UF/IFAS website can direct you on which pesticides/insecticides that are safe around ponds.
While damselflies eat the smaller insects, gnats and midges, dragonflies will go after the larger ones. Aphids, grasshoppers, flies, termites and mosquitoes are just a few items on their menu. I saw one chasing a butterfly the other day and though I did not stay around for the outcome, I feel sure I know who lost the chase. Dragonflies have a high success ratio on flight kills as they target one insect at a time instead of flying through a swarm with no particular one in sight. But just as they prey upon insects, they too become prey for larger insects and birds. Did you know they have been on this planet for millions of years? They were huge back then, but then again, everything else was, too.
I will never forget the small blue dragonfly that landed on my back patio where my beloved cat, Coco, was resting one day a few summers back. She talked to that dragonfly for what seemed to be hours, but I know it was only a couple of minutes. That little dragonfly graciously listened to all she had to say as she reached her paw towards the stick it was resting on, rolling from one side to the other, just chattering up a storm. It was a moment I will never forget. Dragonflies are the most beneficial and welcomed insect in my yard and I hope they visit my pond and garden every year. Insecticides will only do them and all the other beneficial insects harm so please keep this in mind when you purchase them.
So take a break and watch a dragonfly as he flies through your yard and around all the plants. You’ll be glad you did!
The dragonfly – bugger extraordinaire!
Kathy Kinsey is a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. For more information about Dragonflies (Odonata) or gardening in our area, you can visit our website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu . You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.