Tuesday 11 June 2013

Watching azure damsels

It’s the time of year in the UK when dragonflies and damselflies are emerging. The margins of ponds, streams and lakes start to harbour blue, red or other coloured damselflies, while their larger and variously coloured relatives, the dragonflies, fly over the water searching for prey insects. Yesterday, I was visiting ponds in Norfolk and came across many azure damselflies (Coenagrion puella), the bodies of males being a striking combination of blue and black, with the females rather duller (despite their common name, there are male and female damselflies). They were flying around the vegetation and occasionally perching and it was clear that some were newly emerged from the ponds where they had been living as larvae since last summer, as their colours had not developed fully. One adult, just minutes after emerging, became the victim of a spider, which grabbed the damselfly resting on a plant stem and took it to the base of the plant to be devoured later. A piece of “raw” Nature and one that reminded me that my love of watching damselflies and dragonflies is based on my very partial knowledge of how Nature really is, as well my aesthetic appreciation of the insects.

Dragonflies and damselflies (I’ll call them Odonata, as that is the name for the Order) are beautiful to look at, and are very well engineered, but that is not for my benefit. They have existed in much the same form as we see them today for well over 100 million years. We cannot comprehend such a period of time, but we are fairly sure that there were no humans for 99.8% of the time that the contemporary Odonata have been in existence. It is quite extraordinary to know that all the stages of their evolution, from a single cell to the complex insects we know today, occurred way before 100 million years ago: the development through larval stages, with moults to increase size; the ability to fly and change direction rapidly; the development of excellent vision; the different catching devices of larvae and adults. I could go on and on in making a list of features and they were all in place so very long ago, with the successful pattern being repeated through more than 100 million generations. Of course, there are some who cannot accept this view and among the more famous of these was Philip Henry Gosse, the excellent Victorian Natural Historian and author of Omphalos, 1 in which he explained that Creation occurred as described literally in the Holy Bible, over a period of days. To him, fossils (including those of the Odonata, some of which are of much larger forms than are found today) were part of that Creation and it is a view which is still held by some. 

The folklore surrounding damselflies and dragonflies is even more odd than the explanations provided by Creationists like Gosse. As their common name might suggest, it is the dragonflies, rather than their smaller and more delicate relatives, the damselflies, which feature in most folklore.  A review is given in Spinning Jenny and Devil’s Darning Needle by M. Jill Lucas 2 and the title of her book gives us a clue of what is to come. She has researched information from around the World and found that dragonflies may be associated with death (by them breathing on us, or by their sting - although the insects do not exhale and cannot sting) and they might be used by the Devil to “weigh people’s souls”. For those who enjoy fishing, the insects are a sign of good luck or bad luck depending on one’s country and, despite their negative religious associations, are regarded generally as being tokens of good luck, whether one is fishing or not.  In contrast, these “Devil’s Darning Needles” may stitch up the mouths of children who tell lies, the mouths of noisy persons, or the toes of those who sleep with their feet uncovered. It's all very confusing and there is much more on folklore in Jill Lucas’ book, which also covers the position accorded to dragonflies and damselflies in the Arts and as illustrations on stamps. It is well worth reading and shows us both the way in which the insects are appreciated and how extraordinary are our imaginations in making interpretations of the unknown.

I have always spent time watching damselflies and dragonflies. From childhood, it was something that I loved doing and, together with looking at wild flowers and collecting animals and plants from rock pools and streams, was part of my early interest in Natural History. As I describe in Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts,3 the Odonata even became the subject of my undergraduate research project. Is it possible to have a favourite species? Probably not, as they are all beautiful and one cannot separate the insects from their location, which might be magical in the scented evening of a balmy summer’s day. However, if I had to make a choice, it would be the Blue-tailed Damselfly (Ischnura elegans) flitting over reeds. If I didn’t know better, I could believe that it was created just to give me pleasure and a sense of wonder.

1 Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

2 M. Jill Lucas (2002) Spinning Jenny and Devil’s Darning Needle. Bradford, Wheelden Print.

3 Roger S. Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

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