It would be difficult to create a better superhero.
The green darner dragonfly should have its own comic strip, book and movie deal. Its qualities are similar to those of all of the best crusaders: speed, size, strength and a dash of mystery.
It would be surprising if you didn’t encounter these superstar insects during the month of September. They gathered in large numbers, filling the fields and skies in a display of migration majesty.
Like monarch butterflies, the more familiar far fliers, green darners can migrate. While some individuals stay put, others can be counted among the handful of dragonflies that undertake a journey of impressive proportions.
The darners can go singly or in groups, often following the passage of a cold front. Their exact destination is still somewhat unknown, though scientists believe they travel to breeding grounds in the southern United States, Caribbean and Mexico.
Birders, observing the migration of hawks, often see the darners in large numbers. However, the green darner’s choice of travel companion may not be a good one, since hawks will gobble them up for a fuel-up on their own voyage.
Green darners are lean, green flying machines. They weigh only about .04 ounces (the weight of two grains of rice), but they can fly up to 50 miles per hour! Green darners are considered large insects, with a wingspan of four inches and a body length of three inches. Thus, locating one these hefty dragonflies is not exactly like finding a needle in a haystack.
Look for its bright green body and brown or green eyes, which provide darners with a 360-degree view. With their significant size, you might even be able to distinguish between the males and females. Look for a purple grey abdomen on the female and a blue abdomen on the male.
Though the name green darner would be fitting for a superhero, this insect goes by other names. Those scientifically inclined call it Anax junius, which translates to Lord of June, describing the month these insects begin to fill the sky. Darner describes its resemblance to a sewing needle, and mosquito hawk is quite self-explanatory.
And green darners undergo a transformation that would impress even the Hulk. Its metamorphosis comes in stages. Adult dragonflies lay eggs in aquatic vegetation after acrobatic mating in the air, on the ground or hanging from vegetation.
These eggs hatch into larvae called naiads that can overwinter in ponds. Naiads rival their adult alter egos in force and ferocity. As aquatic carnivores, they ravage their food, which includes other insects, tadpoles and even small fish. They are known as ambush predators, watching and waiting until their prey appears. Then these naiads will strike, extending their lower mandible to capture and consume the unlucky supper.
These creatures might thus seem more like villains than superheroes. However, mercilessness is necessary for survival in nature, and it all depends on whether you choose to focus on the “ruthless” or the “efficient” side of their ruthlessly efficient feeding. Once the naiads transform into dragonflies, it is up, up and away for them, and the cycle of life has come full circle. Not a bad superpower to have!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.