The insect world is a bit marmite really. I’ve met a good number of people who adore insects more than they adore the furriest, softest koala bear. But then I’ve met plenty of people who loathe insects with every fibre of their being, who would purge the entire planet of every last creepy crawly if they could. Of course, the entire planetary ecosystem would collapse if they got their way so let’s just be thankful that none of them have found a genie in a lamp and wished all those bugs away.
But my general impression is that the majority of people don’t give insects much thought so long as said insects don’t intrude upon their personal space, don’t turn a hillwalking weekend into a swarming misery or don’t ruin the two or three BBQs they manage to squeeze in between the summer deluges.
Truth be told, my feelings towards insects have always been somewhat middling. They haven’t ‘creeped me out’ like they have some other people, but neither have they had me running towards them to pay closer inspection. However in recent years I’ve been willing to get much closer to insects, to handle them, inspect them and admire their…….yes, I’m going to say it, their beauty.
Changing career paths from banking to environmental education played its part in that because it encouraged me to open my eyes more, but it’s only really since becoming a ranger in 2013 that I’ve acquired an active interest in insects. And there is one insect more than any other that has been responsible for this turnaround. The damselfly.
Creatures from the deep
Although I’d always enjoyed and appreciated the natural world I was largely ignorant of its six-legged inhabitants. Pond life in particular was a mystery to me because, unlike almost all of the primary school kids I meet through work these days, when I was younger I never ever went pond dipping. Rock-pooling at the coast, yes. Dangling string and a hook in the canal, certainly. But not once did anyone take me to a pond or a lake and suggest that I have a dip with a net and see what was in there. Not even in school.
And so in 2013 when I found myself assigned my first ever pond-dipping class for a primary school, I had to do my research and go for a practice dip beforehand. I’d never done it before and was therefore as fascinated (and incredulous) as the kids would later prove to be when all manner of weird and wonderful creatures came up from the deep. A whole new miniature world of producers, predators and prey revealed itself to me, and to this day I think I still get more out of the experience than the kids do.
But one weird new creature was especially fascinating in those first dips. There would be quite a few of them in the tray, of different sizes, but essentially the same generic creature – a long dark brown or green abdomen between 1cm and 2cm long, six legs located towards its front end, two big eyes and what looked like a fan of three tails at its rear end. When they moved they swam through the water with a wavy fish-like motion.
It turned out to be the second of three stages in the lifecycle of a damselfly – a small, flying insect closely related to the dragonflies. The first stage is an egg that’s laid in or near the water, the second is an entirely aquatic larval stage that requires gills (the fan of three tails) in order to breathe, and the third and final stage is a flying adult.
Unlike butterflies, which have a single transformative ‘pupal’ stage between the caterpillar and the adult, damselflies (and dragonflies) change gradually, shedding their exoskeleton as many as 15 times as they grow. They spend a year or more underwater in the larval form, voraciously eating most things smaller than they are (including tadpoles) before climbing up out of the water and undertaking a final moult that reveals the adult damselfly in all its glory. The final translucent exoskeleton of the larva can sometimes be found, ghostlike, on twigs or plants long after the damselfly has departed.
Damsels and Dragons
Both damselflies and dragonflies are part of the same impossibly ancient order of insects called Odonata, which apparently means ‘toothed jaw’. Adult dragonflies are stocky and make a noticeable buzz as they whizz past you, but the more needle-like damselflies barely register. Amusingly, when describing the difference between the two in flight, dragonflies are often said to ‘fly with purpose’, which is to implicitly suggest that dragonflies know where they are going and what they are doing whereas damselflies are a bit frivolous and scatter-brained.
Damselflies are superficially similar to dragonflies in having a long abdomen, two large eyes and two pairs of wings, but they are generally much smaller and you could be forgiven for not really noticing them. And if you DO notice them, you might easily dismiss them as dragonflies. Other than size, on closer inspection the most telling distinction between the two is how they hold their wings when they’re at rest. Dragonflies hold their wings outwards like an aeroplane, whereas (most) damselflies fold their wings behind them, along their abdomen. Another distinction is the size and position of their eyes. Dragonflies’ eyes are huge in relation to their body size and appear to be joined together, whereas damselflies’ eyes are much smaller in relation to their bodies and are very clearly located some distance apart from one another on either side of the head.
Taking a closer look
Although the adult damselflies, of which there are nine species in Scotland, only live for a few weeks they occur in such profusion that there is usually a steady supply emerging from water bodies around the country. Certainly there are a lot of them around just now, so if you find yourself close to a pond or loch over the summer just stand still a while. You’ll be surprised at how many of those needle-like flashes of colour are whirring about the place once you get your eye in.
Coincidentally, around the time I first ‘discovered’ damselflies I got a pretty good compact camera that was able to take macro photos, and I set about experimenting with the first cooperative creatures I encountered……which happened to be damselflies at Beecraigs Country Park. At rest, most were very obliging and allowed me to get close-up piccies that revealed the complexity and beauty of insects in a level of detail I’d never thought possible.
Zooming in, the colours were what really stood out. The gorgeous bright reds, yellow bands and the most stunning electric blues were all much more vivid up close. But I was astonished by the exquisite intricacy of these creatures, whether it was their tiny gripping feet, the almost invisible antennae, the miniscule hairs or their amazing bug eyes. Unlike the one single lens in the human eye, damselflies have around 28,000 individual lenses in each of their ‘compound’ eyes. On an aesthetic level this turns their eyes into beautiful, colourful works of art, but it also very nearly gives the damselfly a 360-degree field of vision. This not only helps them to be consummate hunters in the air but it gives them an advantage in evading those who would in turn hunt them.
Clearly marvels of nature and surprisingly beautiful wee things, damselflies became my new favourite thing that summer, aided in no small part by their tendency to land on my hand if I stayed still long enough. At 38, I felt like a kid again. I didn’t even know damselflies existed as a separate suborder of insect until perhaps six or seven years ago, which of course I feel terribly ashamed about now given that they’ve existed in one form or another for at least 250 million years. I knew about dragonflies of course. Everyone knows about dragonflies, right? But damselflies?
And who knew that both damselflies and dragonflies spend the vast majority of their lives underwater, bearing little or no resemblance to their adult forms!? Well, most other people around me did, it seemed. I find it incredible now but I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me where dragonflies, beetles or indeed every other adult insect came from. It’s just not something I’d ever consciously thought about and, again, I swear none of this ever came up in school. We never did pond life. We never looked at grubs or beetle larvae. When I was growing up, the only insect transformation we learned about was the caterpillar/butterfly thing. At school we would draw butterflies in class, and at home we would try to catch them. Looking back, and indeed looking around me now I see that butterflies have the monopoly on miraculous transformations in nature. Presumably that’s because they are such outrageously pretty things and they’re therefore an easy ‘way in’ for engaging kids with the natural world. That’s great and it’s well deserved, but equally remarkable transformations occur throughout the insect world, not least in and around our ponds, and they just don’t get the attention they deserve.
Encountering my first damselfly up close was a genuinely revelatory moment because it made me think differently about the insect world more generally. Curious about what other insectoid secrets could be unlocked by macro photos, the fascination drove me onwards to snapping anything and everything that crossed my path thereafter. Weevils, ants, ladybirds, beetles, butterflies, they all became my unwitting models and I found more interest and beauty in their finer features than I ever had in the cutest, fluffiest, bounciest bunnies in my garden. I can’t resist the analogy but it was like I’d been underwater in a dark world for most of my life and was now emerging into the light.
In retrospect it seems utterly bonkers that I’d got so far in life without knowing things that were glaringly obvious to most other amateur naturalists out there, but this is what I love about nature and it being part of my job. I am always learning, constantly being surprised, and the more I learn the more I realise how little I actually know.