Flight of the dragonfly

By Pam Martin
KDWPT educator at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center

This article was printed in the Sept. 15 issue of The Great Bend Tribune.

Twisting and turning, hovering here for a few seconds then changing course and darting the opposite direction, watching dragonflies can be as entertaining as attending an air show.

Lately, Barton County residents have been treated to this spectacle in their backyards. Dragonfly swarms have been growing since the late July and early August rains. Generally they head out to hunt during morning and evening hours. Marvels of flight engineering, some species can fly forward up to 35 miles per hour. All species fly backwards, change direction in midair and hover up to one minute.

Dragonflies accomplish this feat with two pairs of wings that can move independently, providing two separate flight surfaces. They use their remarkable athleticism to capture other insects on the wing, swooping them out of the air with their long “hairy” legs that are held like a basket. The whole process takes less than a second. For a great video clip of their flight go to “Science Nation Dragonflies: Flying Aces of the Insect World”. They consume mosquitoes and flies, in addition to other flying insects.

Although our local dragonflies seem to be simply feeding in groups, recent studies seem to indicate the darner group of dragonflies actually migrate in swarms of 200,000 to over a million. They have been observed flying in the same direction, like war planes in formation, in very compact swarms. The swarms tended to follow obvious landmarks, such as coasts and ridges. Scientists have begun tracking dragonfly movements by attaching tiny radio transmitters to their thoraxes

With eyes that take up most of their head and containing up to 28,000 individual lenses, dragonflies can detect movement in an instant. Try and catch one with a net – even a child’s fast reflexes are no match for a dragonfly.

Dragonflies and their smaller, weaker flighted cousins, damselflies, lay their eggs in water or within the stems of plants along the water’s edge. Their juvenile form, the nymph, can live 1 to 3 years depending upon the species. Also carnivorous, the nymphs have a marvelous mouth part that folds under their head until a hapless insect or small fish swims by. The mouthpart unfolds and shoots out, stabbing and grabbing the meal.

When the water was rushing into Cheyenne Bottoms, buckets full of dragonfly nymphs could be scooped out of the water. According to Kiffnie Holt, Kansas State University Insect Zoo, dragonfly nymphs burrow into the mud during drought, following the declining water table and then wriggling up through the fresh new mud to continue their life cycle. So despite a year with no water, Cheyenne Bottoms is once again full of dragonfly nymphs.

Although there are swarms of darner dragonflies even in the towns, the best place to observe several species and their behaviors are at Cheyenne Bottoms and the pond and marsh areas behind KWEC. Bring a lunch and watch the show.

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