Dragonfly Facts and Symbolism
Dragonflies are beautiful insects that have been around for over 300 million years, although the earliest dragonflies were massive compared to the ones we enjoy today. Fossil remains have been found in Kansas of a large dragonfly with a wingspread of 2.5 ft from the Permian Period.
Dragonflies are harmless insects and have inspired numerous myths (albeit negative ones) and nicknames with their elusiveness, beautiful shimmering wings, and erratic flight patterns. Some nicknames for the dragonfly include:
- Devil’s Darning Needle (it was thought that dragonflies would sew the mouths of bad children shut while they slept)
- Snake Doctor (dragonflies were thought to be protectors of snakes, sewing them back together if injured or bringing them back to life.)
- Adder’s Servant (comes from the Welsh name gwas-y-neidr because of the dragonfly's association with snakes.)
- Øyenstikker (the Norwegian name for dragonflies which means eye poker)
Despite its negative mythology, the dragonfly is one of the most beneficial insects to humans, and they are revered in Japan as the country’s national emblem.
Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, and the suborder Anisoptera. There are over 5,000 species, and it is one of the fastest insects in the world, with one being clocked in at 36 mph in Australia.
Dragonflies have compound eyes which give them a 360-degree view of the world around them, although their vision is limited mostly to movement. They lack the clarity of vision that humans and other animals have; however, they can see ultraviolet and polarized light, allowing them to navigate more easily.
Their compound eyes are comprised of 30,000 ommatidia, which are essentially tiny little eyes with their own cornea, lens, and retina. Because of this, their vision is essentially a mosaic of everything around them. They can also so see a wider range of colors including UV.
They also have a special area, directly in front of their compound eyes called ocelli that is flat and is concentrated with eye cells, which allows them to pinpoint insects as they fly. There are three ocelli, one located on each side of the vertex and one in front of the vertex. The vertex is directly in front of the compound eyes and is essentially the anchor for the three ocelli (see photo below).
Because of their large eyes and ability to perceive quick movements, the dragonfly only has two blind spots. If you want to sneak up on a dragonfly to get a closer look, or take a picture, approach it slowly from below or behind. It will never see you coming.
They have the ability to hover because they have two pairs of iridescent wings, which typically flap at about 30 beats per second. Compared to bees, which flap their wings at 300 beats per second, a dragonfly is slow, but they are the strongest fliers in the insect world.
Their wings are strong enough to allow dragonflies to hover even in the strongest of headwinds.
They can fly in all different directions, including in reverse, because their wings are not jointed (like butterflies) and can be moved independently of each other.
This is because a dragonfly uses a direct flight mechanism, meaning each wing is innervated by a muscle that is attached to the base of the wing, allowing it to be moved individually.
Interestingly, when a dragonfly is in flight, there is a phase difference in the front and hind wings. So, when the front pair of wings move in the upward direction, the hind pair of wings moves in the downward direction and vice versa. In the video below, you can clearly see the phase difference as the female Eastern Amber Wing dragonfly moves her wings.
How the Dragonfly Utilizes the Direct Flight Mechanism
The photo below is a close up of the wing musculature and dorsal trachea or breathing hole, which is found just above the musculature for the fore wings.
Dragonfly wings also have a pterostigma, a latin term meaning "wing mark." The pterostigma is found on the leading edge of each wing and acts like a weight which helps stabilize the wing during flight.
This weight prevents vibration that is typical of thin wings at a specific velocity, which would prevent the dragonfly from gliding quickly.
The costa is a long vein that actually comprises the leading edge of the wing. It's also the strongest part of the wing, and it aids the dragonfly in cutting through the air during flight.
Like a typical insect, dragonflies have six legs, but cannot walk. However, they can perch on just about anything. Their legs form a round pouch-like shape, which allows the dragonfly to easily grab and eat prey in flight. It is almost impossible for the prey to escape.
The Dragonfly Life Cycle
The life cycle of a dragonfly can vary from six months to six years, but most of this time is spent as an aquatic nymph.
The eggs are laid on a plant in water, or in the water itself if mom can’t find a proper plant. This is most commonly done in swamp-like areas where lily pads and frogs are found.
Once the eggs hatch, the larvae emerge as nymphs, or naiads. Naiads live in the water for the duration of their development, which can take up to four years. Although rare, the nymphs may come on land to feast on mosquito eggs.
The adult dragonfly emerges after the nymph sheds its skin (called exuvia), usually on the stem of a plant. The adult only lives for about two months. Dragonflies will often culminate around the water in which they were born. Swampy areas tend to have swarms of dragonflies.
What Do Dragonflies Eat?
Dragonflies can eat just about anything they can catch. Some of their favorite meals include:
- Other dragonflies
Dragonflies are carnivorous from the time they hatch, and the nymphs have voracious appetites just like the adults. They are also indiscriminate in their food choices, making them cannibals. Many of the larger dragonflies such as darners will eat other dragonflies if they can catch them.
The nymphs are just as fast in water as adult dragonflies are on land. They have the ability to expel water from an anal opening, which acts like jet propulsion. Even underwater, they can catch just about anything.
In about 30 minutes, an adult dragonfly can eat its own weight in insects. This gluttonous appetite keeps mosquito and other insect pest populations from getting out of control including ants, termites, and even crickets.
The largest dragonflies, called Dragon Hunters, can capture and eat the largest of insects. They are so large that they can even capture and kill a hummingbird.
Like dragons, dragonflies have been immortalized in mythology all over the world. In fact, the name comes from a dragon.
Native Americans believe the insect was actually once a dragon who was tricked into shape-shifting to the form of a dragonfly by a coyote. Once the dragon took the form of the dragonfly, it couldn’t shift back.
To the Native Americans, the dragonfly represents swiftness, illusion, and change, which are three characteristics attributed to this insect around the world.
These beautiful insects have, also, been seen as evil in many cultures. The nickname “devil’s darning needle” came from the myth that dragonflies would seek out bad children and sew their mouths shut while they slept.
The nickname “snake doctor” came from the myth that dragonflies would follow snakes and either sew them together if they were injured, or bring them back to life.
Are Dragonflies Good Luck?
Not all cultures thought of them in negative terms, however. Dragonflies once served as a sign for fishermen. Wherever it hovered, there were plenty of fish to be caught, or if it hovered over the fisherman, it was thought to bring good luck.
Historically, dragonfly symbolism was used in love spells, and it was thought that dragonflies were lucky. Today, it is more commonly used to help one let go of the past, assist in transforming one’s life, and understanding dreams.
The dragonfly has been seen in many pagan cultures as having magical attributes similar to that of a butterfly, including metamorphosis, or change and transformation. This is because of their life cycle, but also because both male and female dragonflies change colors as they age.
Dragonflies are also attributed to the magical properties of:
- Cycles of Life
- The Psyche
- Renewal and Rebirth
The dragonfly is also associated adaptability or the ability to "go with the flow." It is also believed that dragonflies can travel between dimensions, and are messengers of dreams and illusions. The ability to travel between dimensions also connects them with fairies, nature spirits, and the realms of other magical creatures.
Dragonflies can also be omens. If a dragonfly lands on you, it is seen to be good luck. Seeing a dragonfly in dreams or if one suddenly appears in your life, it is a sign of caution. Something in your life is hidden from view, or the truth is being kept from you.
© 2012 Melissa Flagg COA OSC