Magic and Menace
In praise of the damselfly
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The Dainty Killer
Delicate, you call me,
A slender, graceful thing,
Dancing on a gentle breeze;
A jewel that's taken wing.
But if you were an insect,
A mosquito or a fly,
You would shudder when you saw
The hunter, damselfly.
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
Damselflies rarely get their due. They're often overshadowed by their relatives the dragonflies, who have snatched a more prominent place in our general awareness of the natural world. It's not surprising, really. Dragonflies are larger and they're stronger fliers, who zoom around like a hotshot pilot buzzing the tower. Then they perch with their wings spread wide, claiming as much space as they can. A damselfly is a far more subtle creature, with a slender body and quiet wings they carefully fold up over their back when at rest. I most often spot damselflies perched vertically on a leaf on the edge of a garden or pond, a small glint of streamlined colour and shadow who could just as easily be part of a flower.
But that subtlety combined with their beauty is what makes it all the more rewarding to spot a damselfly. It's obvious that over the years entomologists have done their best to capture the poetry of the damselfly in the names they've chosen. Just glance at a list of the nearly 3000 species of damselflies from all over the world and you'll start to feel there's little more magic in the world:
American rubyspot; emerald damselfly; dusky dancer; turquoise bluet; amethyst dancer; orange-tailed sprite; amber-winged spreadwing; metallic ringtail, ivory featherleg; copper demoiselle; ebony jewelwing; goblet-marked damselfly; flame-headed riverdamsel...
Of course damselflies are predators through and through, a killer in the eyes of the smaller creatures who fall prey to the insects we find so pretty. Just like cicadas, the part of the damselfly lifecycle that humans pay the most attention to is also the shortest. Damselflies spend most of their lives underwater as wingless nymphs, breathing through feathery gills that extend out of the end of their abdomen and feeding on whatever small enough creature wanders within reach. This lie-in-wait technique is very different from their strategy as flying adults, when they catch other insects mid-air or pluck them off leaves and, in one species at least, even right off of spider webs. The damselflies make a basket-like shape out of their hair-covered legs to trap their next meal. But the adult stage only lasts for a few weeks or a few months at most, then the damselflies mate, the female lays eggs on submerged plant stems, and the cycle starts again.
So when the weather is warm and the air is buzzing with life, consider doing as the older poet in August Kleinzahler's poem "The Damselfly" suggests: slow down and look, because you may be lucky enough to a spot a gorgeous little killer.
Here’s another poem, Damselflies by John Curtis
The Wikipedia page on damselflies is quite thorough
There is a nice video by nature guide Chris Egnoto called “Ebony Jewelwings, My Favourite Damselfly”
And this video from the US Centre for Biological Diversity is a good summary of how to tell dragonflies and damselflies apart:
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Thanks for reading,
Marilyn & Steve
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