Sunday, August 3, 2014

More Adventures With Water (and Dragonflies)

                                    by Laura Crum

            So this post is (once again) not about horses (very much) or about writing or horse-themed fiction. It’s about my little project pond (again). For the back story, look here, here and here. Or click along to something else if ponds don’t interest you.
            I find my pond endlessly interesting—can you tell? When we left off it was about two months old and murky green with algae. Now it is three months old and the water is very clear—but with a green tinge. There is much filament algae growing among the water plants, but the overall clarity of the water is quite good. I actually like the green tinge—it looks mysterious.

            There are so many aspects that interest me. Raindrops hitting the water on a showery day are mesmerizing. As are reflections of clouds.

            Listening to the little fountain make a soothing water sound is very peaceful.

            Looking for new water lilies in bloom every day is exciting (to me, anyway).

            Staring at water lilies from eye level whole floating on a pool noodle is the best of all.

            But perhaps the single most fascinating thing is the dragonflies. I have learned so much about dragonflies. When we first filled the pond with water a red dragonfly showed up almost immediately. We looked him up and thought he was a “flame skimmer.” How romantic. We read that dragonflies lay their eggs on the water. The eggs hatch into underwater nymphs, which turn into dragonflies. Well, OK, then. But this did not prepare me for what really happens.

            The flame skimmer dragonfly haunted the pool. We learned that the bright red version is the male. The female (as so often in nature) was a drabber brownish orange color. We watched the female lay her eggs by dipping her abdomen in the water. We watched the male mate with the female, often while she was also laying eggs. In about three weeks we began to find the empty nymph bodies, which told my husband (who grew up on the lakes of Michigan and knew about dragonflies) that the nymphs were turning into dragonflies. The empty nymph shells had a hole in the back where the dragonfly had emerged.

            It took us awhile to realize that the little darting underwater beetles we saw were the dragonfly nymphs. And it took us even longer to be observant enough to spot a nymph who had just crawled out of the water, and watch it while a dragonfly emerged from its body. But eventually we were able to do this—quite a few times. And I have to tell you, it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It’s not like a butterfly at all. It’s wild.
            So it goes like this. The nymph/bug, which has lived underwater for its roughly three weeks of life, crawls out of the water when it feels its time has come. It needs a vertical spot—perpendicular to the water. A cat tail, reed or vertical rock is chosen. The nymph crawls maybe six inches out of the water. It clings to the vertical spot. And then THIS happens.

            I have watched it from start to finish. Within five minutes of emerging from the water, the nymph’s back splits open and the dragonfly pushes himself out of the nymph body. The dragonfly’s head pulls out of the nymph head, leaving only an empty shell behind (this was when I realized it was not like a butterfly’s process, the nymph has to animate itself out of the water five minutes before it transforms—thus it needs a brain). The dragonfly has his brand new own legs—he leaves the nymph legs behind. Watching a dragonfly emerge from a nymph is not for the faint-hearted. It is a bit gross and messy. Not all of the dragonflies make it. If the dragonfly falls in the water he is done for.

            Eventually, if all goes well, the dragonfly is able to spread his new wings. His empty nymph body may fall back in the water or it may remain beside him. He hangs until he is able to spread his wings and his wings dry—takes about an hour from the moment he pushes out of the nymph. And then, if he is lucky, he flies away. (We have seen this, numerous times.) The dragonfly in the photo below flew away successfully two seconds after I took the photo.

            As you can see they are rather pale and golden at this point. I can only assume that their brilliant scarlet color develops as they age. And yes, this whole process fascinates me. I can’t help seeing it as a metaphor for human life.

            We are born in this human body, as the dragonfly is born as an underwater beetle—it’s all we know of life. But what if, like the dragonfly, our true calling is much different? So different that we can not even imagine it in our underwater nymph form? And when we leave the world we know and go through that messy process called death, what if that is the moment when it is possible that our true being flies free? I can’t help but think these dragonflies are here to teach me something…


            As for my horseback riding life, it’s definitely taken second place to floating in the pool. I still ride at least once a week, often at my uncle’s small ranch, where we gather the cattle for the ropers. Hmmm, no cattle in the woods…

            There they are…

            So the horses do get out some, anyway. I hope you all are having a lovely summer—whether riding, or floating, or watching dragonflies…or whatever pleases you most.


Linda Benson said...

Oh, thank you for the education, Laura! We have both red and blue dragonflies on our canal and creek, and I always wondered about their life cycle. I do see little darting "beetles" under the water. So these are the nymphs, then? I will now have to watch and see if I can spot one hatching. Gosh, isn't life cool? So much to learn about the creatures with whom we share this planet.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Linda. I have really enjoyed observing the dragonflies and seeing first hand what their life cycle is actually like. Glad you enjoyed the post!

The nymphs must find a vertical surface, so look for them on cat tails and such. They usually crawl out of the water at night, but I have seen them "fledging" in the AM--how I got the photos. I hope you spot one--it is mesmerizing. The initial part, where the dragonfly pushes out of the nymph, happens very fast (like five to ten minutes). But then it takes about an hour for the new dragonfly to dry off, spread its wings and fly away.

Anonymous said...

Dragonflies are fascinating, and are voracious consumers of mosquitos, which makes them my (very good) friends.

There is actually a dragonfly monitoring group in my area (I'm not a member but have considered joining). We have many types here - I have a number of guides to dragonflies - the tiny bluets are my favorites.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Yes--I love it that they eat mosquitos--and their nymphs eat mosquito larvae. They are just the coolest things. My new pond has been taken over by the flame skimmers, but we have a blue dragonfly (which may be a damselfly) that hangs out in the small fishpond.

Allenspark Lodge said...

Alien. I keep having flashbacks to the movie Alien.


Laura Crum said...

Bill--I had the exact same thought!

Val said...

Thank you for the pictures and description. That is truly amazing and a bit frightening up close, but in a good way! Insects are incredible animals.