Fabergé Monsters

Dragonflies: Magnificent Creatures of Water, Air and Land
By Pieter van Dokkum
Yale University Press, 2015

Dragonflies by Pieter van Dokkum.jpg

One of the main problems for the backyard naturalist who wants to learn about dragonflies is the scarcity of books to turn to on the subject. Novice birders encounter no such difficulty: Bookstores devote entire shelves to both the practical and spiritual aspects of the pastime; field guides are plentiful to redundancy; virtually every ornithological species has at some point been celebrated in a standalone monograph. Layperson lepidopterists have to look a little harder, but even so, butterfly watching is an honored pursuit and handbooks and pocket guides are easily procured. The same goes for lovers of trees, wildflowers, seashells and even mushrooms—go book hunting for the mycophile in your family and you’ll turn up a remarkable selection. Conjure an interest in dragonflies, however, and the pickings are slimmer, and often written for specialists.

Granted, the cynical or squeamish might suggest that anyone who voluntarily spends time gazing at dragonflies has bigger problems than a shortage of reading material. These are immense, carnivorous insects, after all, with nothing of the disarming, feminine flutter of butterflies, and it’s human instinct to flinch from their approach. So it’s worth remembering a few things. First, dragonflies are completely harmless to humans—they can’t bite you, they don’t sting, and they don’t spread illness. In fact, they’re one of our most formidable allies in the summertime war against midges and mosquitoes, on which they feast. For the casual nature lover, they have even more going for them. Dragonflies are ubiquitous (they exist in every continent except Antarctica), easy to find (just head to the nearest pond), easy to observe (they fly like the devil but also like to perch), and diversely patterned with bold identifying features (in the order Odonata, which includes the dragonfly’s slighter, less visually stunning cousin the damselfly, there are around 5,000 known species).

Most of all, they’re beautiful, and it’s this quality that’s on display in Pieter van Dokkum’s splendid photography volume Dragonflies: Magnificent Creatures of Water, Air, and Land, an indispensable addition to the literature of odonates. Appropriately sleek and eye-catching, this coffee table book contains crisp précis explanations of the fundamentals of dragonfly history, morphology and life cycle. But it’s hard to attend to the writing when the eye is being snagged by the efflorescent color and extraterrestrial strangeness in every photograph.

A Common Green Darner in flight © Pieter van Dokkum

A Common Green Darner in flight © Pieter van Dokkum

Dragonflies are beguilingly exotic creatures, but van Dokkum’s book is based on their accessibility. The author is not a specialist; he’s an astronomer at Yale University and a self-described amateur photographer. Nearly a third of the book’s photos were taken in a small, unremarkable pond in a tiny park near his Connecticut home—the sort of place where anyone might go for morning walks:

After a while I began to see dragonflies everywhere—and so can you. They dart through our world, flying, seeing, hunting, mating, usually as oblivious of us as we are of them. They hover over parking lots, hunt in city parks, and visit our gardens. They are the true fairies in our lives: wondrous winged creatures that are seen in glimpses, from the corner of the eye.

Van Dokkum’s aim is to bring dragonflies “in for a close-up view,” and if he’s effusive in his admiration for the insects—“fairies” seems a wee bit quaint after you’ve watched one devour a horsefly—that’s not uncommon among the happy little bands of people who have made “odies” their passion.

The fascination has partly to do with age. Dragonflies are roughly 300 million years old, which means they preceded dinosaurs. Fossil records show that many of the early forms of Odonata were enormous—some had 30-inch wingspans, making them the largest insects in history. Even more impressive is the fact that, except for their smaller size, today’s dragonflies differ very little in body structure from these ancient behemoths. They haven’t significantly evolved over these tens of millions of years because they haven’t needed to. They are now, as ever, fearsomely efficiently hunters.

Two traits in particular are key to their success. The first is their vision, which has no rival in the insect world. Most insects have compound eyes, but while in houseflies this comprises around 6,000 individual facets, the eyes of a dragonfly have upwards of 30,000 lenses. These eyes, which are brightly colored, often seem to make up the majority of the head, which is fitting since, as van Dokkum writes, “About 80 percent of a dragonfly’s brainpower is devoted to processing visual information.” Dragonflies have small antennae, but when experiment-happy scientists have plucked them off haven’t noticed any serious change in behavior or drop in proficiency.

That wouldn’t be the case if the same scientists were to tinker with a dragonfly’s wings. These wings, which are veined, ridged and very powerful, beat independently from each other, like aerial four wheel drive, giving Odonata unmatched agility in the air. They’re also capable of exceptional speed and endurance. Some species of dragonfly can reach 35 miles per hour; others are migratory, and can cover up to 100 miles in a day. Migratory patterns are another source of wonder, since the insects only live long enough to make one leg of the trip, producing offspring who then somehow know to complete the return.

The wings of an immature Black Meadowhawk © Pieter van Dokkum

The wings of an immature Black Meadowhawk © Pieter van Dokkum

The dragonfly’s ephemerality is part of its charm, though that is a little deceptive. Actually, it spends the majority of its life in the larval, or nymph, stage. In this stage, dragonfly nymphs live underwater and breathe through gills. They’re no less voracious than they are as adults, using terrifying protruding mandibles to spear and kill a seemingly indiscriminate variety of prey, from snails to flatworms to small fish to other odonate larvae. No one exactly knows if ancient dragonflies underwent a similar life cycle as today, but if they did, Jurassic lakes and streams would have been teeming with ravenous foot-long, razor-toothed creatures consuming anything that moved.

Whereas the period between hatching and molting can last for months and sometimes years, the lifespan of an adult dragonfly is typically measured in weeks. That means that the brilliantly colorful insect silently propelling over the fringe of your local pond is as evanescent as the bloom of a rosebush. The pleasure of dragonfly watching is in trying to catch glimpses of that beauty as it flies, and the loveliest section of van Dokkum’s book is what he simply titles Portraits. Here are sharp, vibrant images of dragonflies going about their business with the same detail and clarity that could be achieved than if they had been netted and pinned to a corkboard. The coloration is otherworldly, as though the creatures had just flown out of the Tiffany stained glass they inspired. The Flame Skimmer has a rich red-orange torso; the Eastern Amberwing has mellow, honey-tinted wings; the Blue-Eyed Darner has day-glo blue-black eyes that might have come from Pixar’s animation studios. The distinctive markings on the wings of the Widow Skimmer and Twelve-Spotted Skimmer make them easy to pick out and follow from a distance. It should be stressed that nearly all of the species named above are commonplace and are right now lurking on the silty floor of your nearby pond, slouching toward metamorphosis.

A male Flame Skimmer © Pieter van Dokkum

A male Flame Skimmer © Pieter van Dokkum

You’re always aware of the single-minded urgency of dragonfly days, and though you can frequently find them perching on vegetation (usually in order to regulate their body temperature, by taking refuge in the shade or by soaking up the sun), their main pursuits are hunting and mating. The art of the dragonfly hunt is as ruthless and efficient as that of any living creature. Their Old Country Buffet-style appetite can make a meal from virtually any passing insect, including other Odonata. Scientists estimate that they are successful in 95 percent of their attacks, and during daylight hours those attacks are virtually continuous. The speed and dexterity of their kills is the most difficult thing to capture on camera and it’s no surprise that van Dokkum passes over this central activity in a matter of pages. Even slow motion video doesn’t quite do it justice.

More strikingly photogenic (if that’s the right word) is the mating process, which is conducted with the same brazen violence as everything else dragonflies do in their brief lives. Van Dokkum describes their Fifty Shades of Grey technique:

Before copulating, male dragonflies and damselflies grab the female behind her head, using claspers on the tip of the male’s abdomen. The female then bends her abdomen, bringing the tip in contact with the abdomen of the male just behind the thorax. The couple now forms a wheel, which in damselflies is heart-shaped. Amazingly, many dragonfly species copulate on the wing, continuing their flight as a curious twelve-legged, eight-winged circular creature.

This mating wheel, or copulatory heart, presents an image that even the least observant nature walkers tend to notice, and the appearance of interlocked dragonflies shuttling clumsily through the bulrushes like a bickering couple on a tandem bicycle is one of the telltales of high summer.

A dragonfly mating wheel (Wikimedia Commons)

A dragonfly mating wheel (Wikimedia Commons)

Like all chroniclers of the natural world, van Dokkum depicts the ageless continuity of the life cycle. Dragonflies deposit their eggs in the water (or sometimes on plants) and live out the flashy remainder of their days before becoming dinner for birds or fish, succumbing to a cold snap, or simply expiring from abrupt old age. The underlying drama of this book is not only the shot and incident that fill the lives of dragonflies, but the raucous, epic fighting, breeding, dying and regenerating that is always taking place in the most placid-seeming swamp or creek. Dragonflies are friends to humans but the opposite is rarely the case, and behind van Dokkum’s handsome book is a conservationist appeal to better appreciate the wetlands and forests where they’ve subsisted for eons and which are always threatened by the forces of development.

Dragonflies joins the short list of books that can help cultivate such an appreciation. Readers who want to prep themselves for this year’s influx of Odonata can add to it the Stokes Beginner’s Guide, which fits in the pocket and is an invaluable aid to identification. Those who feel ambitious can also order the much more comprehensive, if somewhat bewildering, field guides from Princeton University Press. The most exciting book in recent years is A Dazzle of Dragonflies (2005), by Texas A&M entomologists Forest L. Mitchell and James L. Laswell, which is decked out with profuse color scans and photographs. But I’m also partial to Hilda Simon’s homelier 1972 volume Dragonflies, which features the author’s own color illustrations and often illuminates aspects of dragonfly life that stay stubbornly hidden from the camera.

Still, all of this is supplementary. If there is a theme to van Dokkum’s stunning yet warmly approachable book, it’s that nothing special is required to enjoy the world of dragonflies. All you need is a patch of water, a little sunshine, a bit of patience, and a willingness to pay attention to an amazing creature that’s so often overlooked.

Sam Sacks was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Commentary, and the New Yorker. He writes the weekly Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal