FARMINGTON — This is a tale of damsels and dragons, but it doesn’t take place a long time ago in a kingdom far, far away.
It takes place every day along West Virginia’s rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds — where damselflies and dragonflies like to live. In all, 46 species of damselflies and 98 species of dragonflies call the Mountain State home, and Sue Olcott believes they’re some of the state’s most misunderstood creatures.
“There are a lot of folklore myths about damselflies and dragonflies,” said Olcott, a regional wildlife diversity biologist for the Division of Natural Resources. “Some people believe they can sting you; they can’t. Some people associate them with snakes. Some people associate them with the devil.”
In reality, they are harmless to humans. A large dragonfly might nip someone’s skin a little, but only if captured and held in hand.
The benign reality about damselflies and dragonflies struggles to overcome a nefarious image cemented by centuries of folklore.
“They have some really mean-sounding nicknames — Devil’s Needle, Water Witch, Goddess’ Horse, Devil’s Horse, Snake Doctor, Ear Piercer and Bull Stinger, just to name a few,” Olcott said. “Mothers used to tell kids that if they lied, a dragonfly would stitch shut their mouths, and sometimes their eyes and ears as well.”
To this day, the common names of some dragonflies reflect those tales. The Riffle Snaketail, the White-faced Meadowhawk and the Harpoon Clubtail are just three of the many West Virginia species with ominous-sounding names.
All damselflies and dragonflies feed on insects; they dart about, snatching mosquitoes, flies, moths and butterflies out of mid-air. Even their larvae, which develop underwater, prey on other aquatic insect larvae.
“In the bug world, they’re top-order predators,” Olcott said.
Appreciation for their insect-eating ways might have helped lead to some cultures’ kinder opinions about them. Olcott said that in China, dragonflies symbolize summer and stability. In Japan, they’re considered signs of happiness, strength, courage and success. Native Americans associate them with water, purity, quickness and rain. Even so, the sinister myths persist.
“I think people who consider these insects creepy simply don’t know about them,” Olcott said. “Once you know the truth, they seem a lot less threatening.”
Damselflies and dragonflies both have long, lacy wings and long, thin abdomens. Olcott explained, however, that they’re not hard to tell apart.
“There are several ways to tell the difference,” she said. “Damselflies are usually smaller and much more delicate-looking. Dragonflies are typically larger and more robust. One easy way to tell them apart, at least when they’re resting, is to look at their wings. Dragonflies always have their wings out flat, like an airplane. Damselflies either hold their wings together up over their backs, or spread at a 45-degree angle from one another.”
Olcott finds the eyes of dragonflies to be particularly fascinating. Large, bulbous, and composed of as many as 24,000 individual facets, they process visual stimuli with astounding speed.
“If you were to watch a movie with a dragonfly, you would just see a moving picture,” Olcott said. “A dragonfly would see each individual still frame that makes up the moving picture; that’s how quickly they can process images.
“The facets of their eyes have different functions. Some perceive ultraviolet light, some polarized light, and some visual light. It’s a mystery how they construct a usable image in their brain because the information they’re getting is so fragmented, but somehow they do it.”
Adult damselflies and dragonflies don’t live very long as winged adults. Olcott said some live only a week or so, others perhaps a month. Most of their life cycle occurs as larvae, underwater and largely unseen by humans.
Unlike some wildlife species, damselflies and dragonflies are holding their own in West Virginia. Many of the state’s bodies of water are cleaner now than they were before the Clean Water Act went into effect in 1970, and Olcott said it’s having an effect.
“Certainly, the species that live in rivers and streams are doing better,” she added. “When we were doing our census, we rediscovered one on the Cheat River that hadn’t been seen for 40 years.”
Threats to the insects’ existence still exist, however. Olcott said that in the early years of Marcellus Shale natural-gas exploration, damselfly and dragonfly larvae sometimes suffered when streams were dewatered or polluted with sediment.
For the most part, however, the charismatic insects are surviving quite well, making West Virginia an insect kingdom where dragons still cruise the skies and damsels aren’t particularly distressed.
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.