Suburban Wild: Of dragons and ladies

Dragonflies and ladybugs have captured many an imagination with their colourful characteristics

Barbara Julian

Barbara Julian

The flying dragon is perhaps everyone’s favourite insect. Big enough to be easily seen and bright as a flying jewel, the dragonfly, member of the order Odonata (“tooth-jawed”), largely escapes the insect “ick-factor.” As larvae, dragonflies are as small, brown and dull as any uncelebrated bug, but as adults they transform into what Alfred Lord Tennyson called “a living flash of light.”

Their names alone are poetry — Sedge sprite, Swift forktail, Blue dasher, Zigzag darner — and their ancestors, pre-dating birds, were the first creatures ever to take to sky from earth, some 320 million years ago. In those days everything was gigantic, ferns as broad as hillsides, horsetails tall as trees, and dragonflies two and a half feet long. Imagine that now, as you watch them flitting around our local lakes.

“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”: the individual life cycle re-enacts the evolution of a species. Before becoming adults, dragonfly larvae are aquatic mud-dwellers that breathe through gills which also act as fins for swimming. Maturing, they leave water for air and grow wings, just as wings evolved in their ancestors after the gills and fins.

Dragon-like predators, the adults grab small flying insects out of the air and transfer them to crunching jaws while shooting forwards, backwards and sideways using two sets of independently moving wings. They mate head to tail in a circular formation, and the male organ has a special talent: it not only deposits sperm into the female’s abdomen but can also pull other males’ sperm out. The females deposit the eggs in water, mud or onto plants, her mating partner sometimes dive-bombing other males who might try to interfere. There’s more going on with these living flashes of light than a casual observer might realize.

There are 88 species of dragonfly in B.C. and the Yukon, more of the lyrical names including Grappletail, Western pondhawk, Sinuous snaketail and Red-waisted whiteface. A good place to find some in Oak Bay is the pond at the head of Bowker Creek at UVic.

The other insect most likely to escape people’s “ugh” reaction is the ladybird beetle. There is something endearing about its round, red, black-spotted body, so beloved of children’s book illustrators. It performs a useful service, for according to Tracey Stewart in Do Unto Animals (2015), one ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids in an afternoon. That is why local parks departments import them for non-chemical aphid control, although some ecologists consider this a mistake. The wild-caught commercial aphid-destroyers are a species originally imported from Asia which have out-competed the 450 native species, and in some places become a crop-harming pest themselves.

They do have the handy habit of laying their eggs among aphids however, which the hatching larvae immediately start devouring. They also need pollen, so anyone with aphids can attract ladybugs by planting geraniums and umbrella-shaped herbs. They like dandelion pollen too, however, so presumably help spread that pest even as they control the aphid. As always, relationships among the plants and animals around us are intricate.

Ladybugs have a handy ability some humans might envy. They eject a poisonous liquid from their knee joints when anything tries to molest them. These would usually be birds or spiders, not humans, because although they over-winter in people’s houses, instead of being squashed or evicted like a spider they are often considered a sign of good luck and left unharmed. It’s amazing what an advantage a cheerfully spotted red thorax can be, if it causes people to coddle you in a nest box and paint your portrait instead of squashing you under their heels.



Barbara Julian is a local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes here once a month about the wildlife in and around Oak Bay.


Just Posted

Diana Durrand and Arlene Nesbitt celebrate the new artist space in 2014. Gage Gallery moves this summer from Oak Bay to Bastion Square in Victoria. (Black Press Media file photo)
Gage Gallery moving to Bastion Square

Vivid Connections, a showcase by Laura Feeleus and Elizabeth Carefoot, opens new venue June 29

Theatre SKAM is offering mobile, pop-up performances to Greater Victoria residents once again this summer. They’ll feature emerging artists Yasmin D’Oshun, Courtney Crawford, Kaelan Bain and Kendra Bidwell (left to right). (Courtesy of Theatre SKAM)
Theatre performances can be ordered to Greater Victoria front yards this summer

Theatre SKAM offering mobile, pop-up performances once again

Days after students’ return to Victoria High School was delayed by a year, the province has announced some amenities that will be included in the school’s expansion project. (Photo by Cole Descoteau)
Child-care spots, artificial turf field, non-profit space included in Vic High expansion

SD61 now aims to welcome students back at the high school by September 2023

Gwen Spencer Hethey with her uncle and mentor Major Frederick Richardson. (Courtesy of Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame)
‘She was a killer’: The Victoria woman who pioneered female sharpshooting

Gwen Spencer Hethey made military men ‘look like turkeys’ says her son

Anita Troop officially turns 100 on Sunday and cards are pouring in from around the world. (Courtesy Marina Miller)
Cards roll in from around the world for West Shore 100 year old

About 100 cards have come for the woman who turns 100 on Sunday

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Central Okanagan Grade 12 grads are set to get $500 each after a more than $1 million donation from a Kelowna couple. (File photo)
B.C. couple donating $500 to every Grade 12 student in the Okanagan

Anonymous donors identified as Kelowna entrepreneurs Lance and Tammy Torgerson

Rita Coolidge played the main stage at Vancouver Island Musicfest in 2017. (Black Press file photo)
This year’s Vancouver Island MusicFest to virtually showcase beauty of Comox Valley

Returning July 9 through 11 with more than 25 hours of music performances

Most Read