Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

I’M very lucky in that my stepson, Rob, is also interested in natural history and, more importantly, is a very good and keen photographer. Because he and his wife love canoeing, they get to places I can no longer hope to visit and get much closer to all kinds of water-haunting creatures. He’s developed a particular interest in insects, so earlier this year I received a sequence of pictures of damselflies. When I see damselflies – the daintier cousins of our spectacular dragonflies – they all seem to be the same colour: darting needles of electric blue, crimson or, occasionally, a beautiful jade green: a mass emergence of the same species, I suppose. But one of Rob’s voyages produced images of all these plus other, rarer specimens – one with a piggy-pink thorax and another the gorgeous banded demoiselle with its metallic blue-green body and midnight blue wings shot through with gold and iridescence.

Now, as summer fades into autumn, it’s the dragonfly pictures that ping onto my phone. It started with four spot chasers – one of the easier ones to identify because of the four black marks like smudges on the wings. More recently it’s the turn of the big hawkers. Dragonflies are formidable predators. They either lie in wait on convenient vegetation – darters – or patrol their chosen stretch of water on the lookout for prey or trespassers - hawkers. They have exceptional sight: most of the head is taken up by the eyes, each with up to 30,000 separate lenses so they have virtually all-round vision. Their two sets of wings, each set able to move independently, give them superb manoeuvrability – up, down, left, right, forward and, amazingly, backwards. And they are fast, as anyone trying to get a photograph knows only too well.

Yet this aerobatic life is only a fraction of a dragonfly’s lifespan. Once they hatch from eggs carefully deposited by the female on water-growing plants, they become nymphs – a pretty name for a voracious, dragon-like larvae. One nymph can remain in this form for a year or possibly more, moulting skins as it gets bigger and bigger. Then, at last, it climbs a reed or other stem and after a final skin-splitting moult emerges as the astonishingly resplendent airborne adult we recognise. The larval husk is left on the escape plant, giving us a chance to examine the shape from which it escaped into such a different life.