Winged won­ders

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - SPOTLIGHT -


But did you know that the fly­ing in­sects we see are the de­scen­dants of in­sects that pre-date the di­nosaurs? To­day’s drag­on­flies are large, cer­tainly com­pared to other in­sects, but they would hardly make a snack for their 300 mil­lion year old an­ces­tors, some of which boasted 1m wing-spans!

In the UK and in English, the word “dragonfly” cov­ers two dif­fer­ent groups of in­sects: dam­sel­flies (or zy­goptera – from Greek mean­ing “sim­i­lar wings”, be­cause the two pairs of wings the adults have are iden­ti­cal), and drag­on­flies (or anisoptera – “dif­fer­ent wings”, as the front pair is usu­ally thin­ner and longer than the rear pair). Both groups are clas­si­fied as Odo­nata – lit­er­ally “toothed jaws”.

Around the world there are ap­prox­i­mately 5,300 species of odo­nata; most live in the trop­ics, but in the UK there are about 40 reg­u­larly breed­ing species.

The im­pres­sive drag­on­flies we see buzzing around are the short-lived, adult forms of lar­vae that have lived for (usu­ally sev­eral) years, out of sight in a lake, pond or mov­ing wa­ter course, eat­ing their way through aquatic in­ver­te­brates in or­der to grow and lay down re­serves that en­able them to un­dergo the trans­for­ma­tion from “ugly” to “daz­zling”.

Lar­vae are found in all wa­ter habi­tats – del­i­cate blue-tailed dam­sel­flies can use tiny, tem­po­rary pools or pud­dles for lay­ing their eggs in, the bril­liant emer­ald dragonfly prefers large pools or lakes on heaths, whereas the club-tailed dragonfly will only use the broad, lan­guid River Thames.

Whilst the lar­vae are re­stricted to wa­ter the adults can be found any­where, woods, mead­ows, gar­dens; any­where that small fly­ing in­sects can be snatched. But they are most com­monly en­coun­tered near wa­ter, where breed­ing takes place.

Our dam­sel­flies tend to be smaller, more del­i­cate crea­tures, with less dra­matic coloura­tion (usu­ally blue, red or black). How­ever, the beau­ti­ful and the banded demoi­selles are stun­ning dam­sel­flies with shim­mer­ing, metal­lic colours.

Dam­sel­flies may also be dis­tin­guished by their habit of hold­ing their wings to­gether in line with their ab­domens when at rest, in­stead of at right an­gles to the body as drag­on­flies do; al­though be­ware as emer­ald dam­sel­flies go for a 450 halfway po­si­tion, but this can help to iden­tify them quickly be­fore they take flight at your ap­proach.

BBOWT na­ture re­serves with wet­land habi­tats, such as We­ston Turville Reser­voir and Calvert Ju­bilee, can be good places for dragonfly spot­ting. But wet­land habi­tats and their wildlife, in­clud­ing drag­on­flies and dam­sel­flies, are un­der threat around the world; mostly the threat comes from the qual­ity of the wa­ter feed­ing them. BBOWT is work­ing with the En­vi­ron­ment Agency and Nat­u­ral Eng­land to main­tain clean wa­ter sup­plies to our re­serves to safe­guard the pre­cious wet­land wildlife.

Keep out for drag­ons and damsels when you’re out near wa­ter this sum­mer. Most are fast so pa­tience, binoc­u­lars and a good field guide are es­sen­tial if you want to be able to iden­tify in­di­vid­u­als. Al­ter­na­tively, just marvel at their grace, agility and en­ergy, and thank them for the share of midges, mosquitoes and flies that they take to make our sum­mer wa­ter­side walks more en­joy­able.

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