Very few insects have been the subject of a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson and at the same time the subject of a school of haiku poets in Japan. Tennyson described seeing a dragonfly shedding its outer skin as ‘An inner impulse rent the veil, of his old husk from head to tail, came out clear plates of sapphire mail’. The Japanese haiku poet Hori Bakusui wrote ‘Dyed he is with the, Colour of Autumnal days, O red dragonfly’.
The dragonfly can be found in every part of the world with the exception of Antarctica. It can also be found locally, such as in and around the pond in Boughton Brake as well as flying several miles from water.
The life and development of the dragonfly is unusual in the extreme. It starts life as a nymph living in water and breathing through gills. It is mobile, using a form of jet propulsion, by taking in water through its gills and then expressing it forcibly through its rectum. The larger versions of the insect can stay in this state for up to about five years. It is a predator in this period.
Then it undergoes a complete change of life. It hauls itself out of the water, ideally on to a reed or something similar, develops lungs and abandons the gills and begins to breathe air. It continues as a predator although its diet changes, and it develops wings. The big change seems to take place normally in or about April. Its airborn life lasts for a few weeks only, although you can see them occasionally as late as September.
Dragonflies are powerful and agile fliers. They can fly in any direction (up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards) and change direction instantly. I am told that in the southern states of America the locals race dragonflies but it is not clear if this is waterborn or airborn. They are truly remarkable.
Main image: Pete Beard