Trolls’ Spindles, Eye Pokers and Adder’s Servants

Red Admiral Butterfly

Red Admiral Butterfly

Birding people become butterfly enthusiasts after “peak” birdwatching ends in June. Butterflying is really a much better hobby since it doesn’t require getting up so early in the morning!  Butterflies operate a lot more like people than birds do: they prefer to get going when the sun is up and things are already nice and warm. As small as they are, in this they show a lot more sense than birds do.

Some nature enthusiasts don’t know when they’ve got it good. After running around all spring after migrating birds who get up at ungodly hours, you’d think they’d be happy to latch on to butterflies and leave it there. Nope. Not content to look at butterflies in a leisurely way, go home and have a nice glass of iced tea in the shade, many have to up the ante. They get sucked into studying dragonflies.

Do you remember when dragonflies were known as “devil’s darning needles”? Apparently this related to the old wives’ tale (and as an actual old wife I feel I can use the phrase without prejudice) that dragonflies would sew together the lips of wicked little children as they slept. Though this is not an altogether bad idea, it is untrue. Still, it’s a good example of the notion that dragonflies and their skinnier counterparts the damselflies (note that the thin one gets the cuter name,) have in many cultures been associated with scary, sometimes supernatural happenings. Legend in Sweden has dragonflies used by the Devil as devices to measure the weight of souls. I hope they need extra dragonflies when my time comes.

Right around the time butterflies get going, onodates (dragonflies and their relatives) start zipping around ponds and wet areas. In a beauty contest, there aren’t too many that would vote for a dragonfly over a butterfly, except maybe another dragonfly. And really, they should know. A dragonfly’s eyes occupy three-fourths of its head. Their eyesight is really, really good. Thousands of distinct lenses occupy each individual eye. Known as “compound eyes”, these include specific lenses in aid of seeing directly above, straight-ahead and a bifocal-like pair for magnification.

I suppose it can be said that hobbyists who follow both butterflies and dragonflies enjoy going from the sublime to the ridiculous. And if you feel that butterflies occupy the “sublime” end of the spectrum, there is little doubt where the dragonfly with its bulbous eyes, flashing wings and militaristic patrol of his little patch of pond belongs.

But don’t lose respect for the dragonfly. His wings are of prehistoric design, yet he is more nimble than many insects with wings of more new-fangled engineering. Lab experiments show that with their primative makeup, the dragonfly wing should beat about 30 times a second. A honeybee can do 250 beats, and there are some no-seeum types that can achieve more than 1,000. Nontheless, a dragonfly can catch either of them in a race. Why? NASA engineers as well as the US Air Force and Navy put dragonflies in wind tunnels and used strength meters to figure out the secret. Apparently by moving its two sets of wings in opposition to one another they create more than three times the “lift” for their weight than bugs with “better” designed wings.

It’s an unblalanced equation weighing  the value of one creature against another. I don’t know whether the dragonfly is more favored by nature than the butterfly or the other way round. I am always astonished at the things I learn about  animals and plants.

It adds up to giving up my iced tea  and butterfly walk.  There are a whole bunch of really cool dragonflies down by the pond and a good hundred or two of swell books about them I don’t own yet.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


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One Response to “Trolls’ Spindles, Eye Pokers and Adder’s Servants”

  1. Bridget Willard Says:

    I didn’t know that their wings flap in opposition to each other. That’s amazing!

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