Designer Bill Blass’ advice to the fashion conscious was: “When in doubt, wear red.”
Meadowhawk dragonflies know this. Perhaps they even started the scarlet trend, having been around since the Carboniferous Period 270 million years ago. Their ancestors, though, would never make it in today’s modeling world, with their 29 inch wingspan; they were hardly a size 2.
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that these ancient giant dragonflies were the size of seagulls. Their modern descendents aren’t exactly model material, either: they don’t have a wasp-like waist (being of a different branch of the tree of life from wasps), and they don’t have a waif-like appearance, though they do have amazing eyes — more on those in a moment.
This much we know: dragonflies are fashionable flying foragers seen recently in large numbers out and about on sunny days. Their red bodies proclaim their confidence as they ferociously fly in forest and field.
Mosquitoes and other insects are their prey. Dragonflies seek out as many as they can find, since they can eat an amount of food equal to their own weight in about 30 minutes! Dragonflies use their six legs to make a basket to help them catch their prey. These legs do them little good for anything else, though, because dragonflies can only fly: their legs can’t be used to stroll, walk or saunter down the catwalk.
Also unlike famous supermodels, dragonflies don’t need dark sunglasses. These beauties can’t hide from their fans, or from their stalkers for that matter, but they can certainly see what’s going on. With 30,000 facets on each eye, dragonflies can see in all directions simultaneously without moving their head, but surprisingly they don’t observe details very well. Humans, with their simple unitary eyeballs, see details much better, though not in as many directions at once.
Dragonflies, like a few models, have a dark side, or at least a dark reputation. In England they are thought to be sinister and evil. Nicknames for the flyers include “devil’s darning needle” and “ear cutter.” The first alias refers to the old wives’ tale that scares poorly behaved children into believing that the dragonflies will come to them at night and sew their mouth together as they sleep. Ear cutter is self explanatory.
The Portuguese shared these fears, calling dragonflies “eye snatchers” or “eye pokers.” Swedes believed that the devil used these insects to weigh people’s souls. No need to worry about your eyes, ears or soul, any animal that targets and eats mosquitoes is okay in my book.
Dragonflies will not be around for too much longer (as individuals, that is, not the species). They spend more of their life in the water than out of it. Female dragonflies lay their eggs on aquatic plants or in the water. Eggs hatch into a nymph or larva, which is the ugly duckling for dragonflies. (Even supermodels go through such an awkward phase.) If the weather is unfavorable, they will continue to spend time in the water. Some species can spend up to five years in the larval stage.
Dragonfly larvae thrive underwater because they can breathe through gills located in their rectum. Larvae can propel themselves by expelling water through that part of their body. Not very sexy, to be sure, though it has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s certainly an elegant design, providing propulsion and forward momentum.
The dragonfly will never be out of fashion — unlike some of the fly-by-night insects that have come and gone. They are as perennial as the little black dress, and have proved, during hundreds millions of years, Cecil Beaton’s saying: “The truly fashionable are beyond fashion.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.