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dragon-fly / dragonfly

A genus of insects of the family Libellulidæ, having large and strongly reticulated wings, a large head with enormous eyes, and a long body. They are exceedingly powerful and swift of flight. — Webster, 1882

The much-abused dragon-flies, says a recent writer, are perfectly harmless to human beings. They neither bite nor sting, but destroy vast numbers of mosquitoes, flies and other insects. If brought into the house, they will catch flies and mosquitoes as long as they are unmolested. In fact, they ought to be made household pets, instead of being ruthlessly driven out as though their presence was dangerous. – Redwood (Minnesota) Gazette, 1881.

Dragonflies are observed by young Laura Ingalls near Plum Creek in Minnesota, and near the Big Slough in Dakota Territory. Except for noticing that the dragonfly on the homestead is hunting a gnat, they’re merely mentioned in passing, as a part of the landscape. On a recent trip to Ingalls Homestead, I walked along the road by the Big Slough and looked down to see an Emperor Dragonfly at my feet; the photo I snapped is on the navigation button that brought you here.

There are about 500 species of dragonflies found in North America, ranging in size from less than half an inch to over five inches in length. They start life as eggs laid on water plants or the water’s surface, in jelly-like masses. These eggs hatch into nymphs which live and feed in the water itself, the longest cycle of the dragonfly’s existence, up to four years in some cases. Once mature, the nymph crawls out of the water, sheds their skin, and the adult dragonfly takes off to find food… and a mate.

Dragonflies are said to be one of few bugs that people actually like (others are ladybugs and butterflies). The poet Tennyson called dragonflies “living flashes of light” in the poem below, and they can be found in many beautiful colors. They are also deadly predators more skilled at hunting prey than even the lion, and they can rival a cheetah for speed, flying at up to 35 miles per hour. Dragonflies have four wings capable of working either together or independently, allowing for flight in all directions: up and down, back and forth, and twisting and turning. They can even take off backwards. Six legs grab their prey, and their large eyes allow them to easily spot mosquitoes or gnats; you often see dragonflies skimming the surface of a pond or other body of water, looking for dinner. They can kill up to 300 insects per day and were no doubt appreciated by the Ingalls family living so close to the slough that mosquitoes were a problem. (See By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 31, “Mosquitoes.”)

The following appeared in a Minnesota newspaper at the time the Ingallses were homesteading near De Smet. The photo of a dragonfly laying eggs, shown below, is by Andreas Trepte,, and used with permission.

A USEFUL AND UNAPPRECIATED INSECT. One of the most useful and beneficial insects of the summer season, and one whose services are least appreciated by the agriculturist, is the common dragon fly. There are many varieties, comprising an extensive and beautiful group of large sized insects, rivaling our butterflies in gracefulness of form and brilliancy of coloring, while they excel them in rapidity of flight. Various popular names have been given them in different countries. The French call them “Demoiselles,” the Germans “Gauze Flies” and “Virgins of the Water,” while among the English they are known as “Dragon Flies,” “Horse Stingers,” and “Devil’s Darning Needles.” The first of the English names is very appropriate to the character of the fly, for among other insects, it fully earns its title of “Dragon.” It is not a “horse stinger” however, can neither bite, sting nor poison, and as to a “devil’s darning needle,” does not sew up the mouths of those children who are given to romancing. They are perfectly harmless to man, and can be handled without danger.

The dragon fly belongs to the order “Neuroptera” and the family “Libellulidae.” They have six legs and four wings. In average specimens the body attains the length of an inch and a half or two inches. They are almost universally dressed in gayest colors. The body is variously banded with rich shades of blue, green and yellow, and the wings give off the most iridescent and metallic reflections. The substance of the wings is a delicate newwork, covered by a thin, transparent membrane, combining great strength with lightness, which enables it to fly and dart upon its prey with the greatest rapidity. The long tail, or “needle,” undoubtedly, acts as a rudder to its steady flights. The large head is provided with two enormous compound eyes, composed of many thousand facets, and their great power of vision is still further increased by three simple eyes, or ocelli, on the upper portion of the head. The mouth is quite a formidable structure. The upper lip is broad and conceals powerful toothed mandibles, and there are other organs of the mouth armed with strong teeth which enable it to rend and masticate its food.

The natural term of life of the dragon fly is about one year. Most of its existence is passed in the water in the condition of larva or pupa, and it inhabits the air only three or four weeks. When about to complete its final transformation, the pupa climbs up some suitable place near the surface of the water, attaches itself firmly to some object, and in a short time the skin opens along the back, and from the rent there soon appears the perfect dragon fly, who, after drying his wings, trusts his untried pinions with the fullest confidence to the new element, in which he lives but a few short summer days.

Tennyson beautifully describes these chances in the “Two Voices”:

To-day I saw the dragon-fly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk; from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings; like gauze they grew
Through crofts and pastures wet with dew
A living flash of light he flew.

      During its existence of three or four weeks above the water its whole life is a continued good to man. It hawks over pools and fields and through gardens, decimating swarms of mosquitoes, flies, gnats and other baneful insects. Their rapid flight and enormous range of vision enable them to capture these insects with ease. They destroy multitudes of moths and millers whose larvae are injurious to vegetation, while they do not injure any product of agriculture themselves. A few of them shut into a house, would very soon rid it of flies, bugs and mosquitoes. They are perfectly harmless, and can be handled with impunity, and are an interesting subject for study, as there still remains much to be learned of their natural history. The dragon fly is widely distributed over all parts of the globe, but few, however, exceed in size or beauty those of our own country. — The Mankato (Minnesota) Review, 1881.


dragon-fly / dragonfly (BPC 3; TLW 1)