Suburban Wild: Of dragons and ladies

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

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

Victoria Women’s March draws hundreds

Pink pussy hats aplenty as demonstrators took to downtown streets

Oak Bay Council agenda at a glance

Regional Transportation Service, major reserve funds, and Oak Bay Heritage on tonight’s agenda

Backyard of $2.2M Uplands property bulldozed for BMX jump track

34-year-old financial advisor fulfills childhood dream

School fence damaged by soaring sailboat

One boat owner advised, Transport Canada responsible for second boat

Backyard of $2.2M Uplands property bulldozed for BMX jump track

34-year-old financial advisor fulfills childhood dream

Cause of Northern B.C. seaplane crash released

TSB releases report on seaplane crash during a water landing in 2016 near First Nations community

Vancouver police crack down on pop-up pot vendors

Officers raided merchants’ tables on Robson Square late Sunday

Bell Media, NFL take appeal over Super Bowl ad rules to top court

At issue is a ban on substituting American ads with Canadian ones during the game’s broadcast

Crown seeks 4.5 years jail for B.C. woman convicted of counselling tax evasion

Debbie Anderson the latest from group to face jail for teaching debunked ‘natural person’ theory

Road conditions wreak havoc for Comox Valley drivers

Icy road conditions early Monday morning kept first responders very busy throughout… Continue reading

Brother of B.C. teen killed by stray bullet says the death left a void

Alfred Wong, 15, was gunned down in Vancouver while on his way home from dinner with his family

Former Victoria junior Hicketts making his NHL debut tonight

Second-year pro, Kamloops native, called up from Grands Rapids of the AHL

Movie filmed in Castlegar B.C. opens Friday

Hollow in the Land starring Dianna Agron will be playing in select cinemas.

Most Read