Dragonflies: Versatile and voracious hunters

Sharna Johnson

Spring and summer rains on the dry Plains give birth to an uncharacteristic array of flora — and bugs.

High moisture also means life for one of the most versatile and voracious hunters of the insect world: Dragonflies.

A wet season this year, leaving behind full ponds and standing water, has bolstered dragonfly populations in the region alongside higher mosquito numbers, according to Darren Pollock, an entomologist and associate professor at Eastern New Mexico University.

And as a result, Clovis and Portales residents are seeing more of the bright fliers than normal.

Classified as a beneficial insect, Pollock said dragonflies feast on other insects and are unrivaled hunters.

Similarly, the more there is for them to eat, the more they will breed, one way nature balances.

“One year you’ll have tons of dragonflies and tons of prey … (And) like many predators, they will gorge themselves on a prey item. They’ll kind of localize in an area that has the prey that they need,” Pollock said.

“The adults eat dozens of mosquitos every day.”

Dragonflies lay their eggs in water, whether it be in a stock tank, wet playa, pond or a puddle in a ditch, he said.

But a lot of rain is not enough to ensure success. Timing is also key because the dragonfly young spend their youth in water, emerging and taking to the air when they reach adulthood.

“It’s more a matter of when (moisture) happens and how long it sticks around,” he said, explaining it takes three to four weeks from egg to adulthood.

But the timing can also be somewhat tragic, he said, especially in an area like the desert or the Plains.

“You’ll see this ditch that has like 6 inches of water in it … (And) dragonflies are laying their eggs in it because they (don’t have a sense about how long it will be there),” he said.

“But the youth, they’ll be toast because the water source will dry.”

With four wings that stay extended to the sides of the body, he said dragonflies can hover and fly in any direction, including backward, at high speeds.

Once they take to the air, dragonflies can range long distances from their aquatic nurseries and are virtually untouchable, avid hunters who, “have very few predators because they’re so nimble,” Pollock said.

They even mate in the air, he said, flying tandem until the female is released to go deposit her eggs in a body of water.

There are 435 species of dragonflies in North America and an estimated 5,000 have been identified worldwide.

The largest species of dragonfly in the U.S. measures just shy of 4 inches long, he said, with varied colors and patterns.

Dragonflies are often confused with damselflies, which look similar but are smaller, fold their wings onto their backs and tend to stay in an aquatic environment.

Pollock said though they are undeniably beneficial, humans have been divided on dragonflies for centuries.

Lore has sometimes depicted them as evil, earning them names such as “The Devil’s Darning Needle,” Pollock said.

In Japan they are revered and appreciated for their beauty. Japanese gardeners go to a lot of trouble to encourage them to inhabit koi ponds and natural areas, he said.