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Master Gardener: Dragonflies are helpful mosquito-eaters
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Master Gardener: Dragonflies are helpful mosquito-eaters

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As a kid, I remember seeing dragonflies all the time, but now I never see them. Do we still have dragonflies? — T.K.

Yes, we still have dragonflies, depending on where you live. Let me explain.

There are about 5,000 species of dragonflies with almost 15% of those in danger of extinction. Since dragonflies are essentially aquatic insects that spend most of their life in the water, I am going to guess that as a kid you used to live near a pond or water source, but now you don’t. Those of us who live in urban areas without nearby ponds or lakes probably don’t see many dragonflies.

When our children were younger, we used to spend a lot of time at the lake, and it was not unusual for a dragonfly or two to land on our head or arm as we floated in the water. In fact, now that I have been working on this article, I have been paying attention to see if I see any dragonflies in our landscape, and I don’t. But as fate would have it, we went to Grand Lake on Labor Day and the first thing I saw flying around the patio was a dragonfly. So yes, there are still dragonflies, but you need to be near water.

Dragonflies are insects in the order Odonata. Insects in this group are characterized by large multifaceted eyes, two pairs of wings and an elongated body. Their eyes provide them with excellent vision due to their very unique structure.

Dragonfly eyes have up to 30,000 “facets” and are arranged in a way that gives them almost 360-degree vision. This gives them a huge advantage when hunting for food and one of their favorite foods are mosquitoes. Each dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes a day. Because of this, dragonflies are sometimes known as “mosquito hawks.” They will also eat gnats, midges, flies and even smaller dragonflies, making them an entirely beneficial insect.

Unfortunately, they are also sometimes known as “horse stingers,” which is inappropriate because they can neither sting nor bite.

Interestingly, dragonflies predate dinosaurs by over 100 million years. Some have theorized that the dragonfly may have been the first insect or even animal to fly. Scientists have found a fossilized dragonfly from about 250 million years ago. This one had a wingspan of about 28 inches. I think it would be cool to have 28-inch-wide dragonflies flying around the yard, but I am likely in the minority on this. It’s probably good that today’s varieties only measure 1 to 4 inches in length.

Dragonflies have a simple life cycle of three stages: egg, nymph and adult. Adult females lay their eggs either on or near the water. In about 3 to 5 weeks the eggs hatch into nymphs called naiads. While in this nymph stage, they live essentially buried in mud or attached to plants underwater. This stage can last anywhere from several a few months to three years.

The nymphs don’t look like the adults. You may have seen them at some point and not known they were young dragonflies. They have a long slender body, six legs, and a large head but no wings. While in the nymph stage, they feed on small aquatic animals such as insects, tadpoles, worms or even very small fish, reaching out and grabbing their dinner as it swims by.

Once they are fully grown, they crawl out of the water to finish the process of becoming an adult. In what can be a half-hour long process, the adult dragonfly emerges from the naiad skin. Once the wings are ready, they fly off in search of a mate. Adults may live up to six weeks. After mating occurs, the female lays her eggs, and the process starts all over again.

Interestingly, dragonfly mating occurs while flying. You may have seen two attached dragonflies flying, landing and flying again at some point. Well, that’s what was going on. Dragonflies can remain in this position for several days before detaching to carry on with their lives.

The “dragon” part of their name comes from their strong jaws, which they use to catch their prey. The fly portion, well, that should be obvious, but they are also the world’s fastest insect, with the ability to reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.

When hunting for food, the adult dragonflies will fly in a zigzag pattern above the water or your lawn essentially scooping up mosquitos, gnats or other insects from the air with their front legs which they hold like a basket just beneath their mouth.

Damselflies are a close relative of the dragonfly and may easily be confused with the dragonfly. You can tell them apart in a couple of ways. Damselflies are smaller and more delicate than dragonflies and when they are at rest, damselflies hold their wings straight up and together above their body while the wings of dragonflies remain horizontal while at rest. Both are great partners to have in your landscape. Happy gardening!


The Men Who Would Be Scene: Episode 25

Tulsa World's James Watts and Jimmie Tramel talk Smurfs U.S. debut, Tulsa ties to TV's "Columbo," efforts to restore the Midland Theater in Coffeyville, Kansas, and a preview of OKC's new First Americans Museum

You can get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th St., or by emailing us at mg@tulsamastergardeners.org.

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