Dragonflies, Nature’s Fighter Jets

A dragonfly perches on a flower.

My grandmother called them snake doctors. Whatever name dragonflies go by, they’re deceptive creatures. I say deceptive because of what a woman told me. “I love dragonflies and think of them as beautiful, gentle, loving creatures.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The next time you see a dragonfly, like the blue darter shown here, watch it hover, dart about, fly backward even, then perch on a favorite spot. Sit still and hold a finger out. It might touch down on it, light as ash. Keep watching because it’s hard to see why dragonflies terrify smaller flying insects.

In dragonflies, nature perfected an aerial killing machine, nature’s version of F-16s. It’s hard to see them kill because they are always in motion and their prey is small. (Dragonflies can only eat when flying.) A dragonfly locks onto, say a mosquito, and flies to the spot where the doomed one is headed. Intercepting the mosquito, the dragonfly’s feet snatch it from the air. Those massive mandibles then crush and rip it apart. Not so gentle and loving is it, but the world has one less mosquito. A good thing.

Now what’s this snake doctor name all about? Well, it’s a southern thing. Only down South do we bandy about the term “snake doctor.” The old story goes that when a snake gets cut or injured, snake doctors stitch them back together. It’s said too that if snake doctors are about so is a snake. All summer two blue darters have patrolled my deck, and for the first time ever I saw a snake beneath my deck one day.

I’ve enjoyed watching my dragonflies this summer. Their cellophane-like wings catch the light and flash. They stop on a dime and then those wings remind me of old World War I biplanes. Off they go again, wings a blur as some hapless gnat or butterfly even becomes prey.

I hear Albuquerque, New Mexico established a dragonfly sanctuary. Well, down South we have plenty of dragonfly sanctuaries. We call them Carolina bays. Those of you who follow my work know that I’ve explored a lot of Carolina bays over the past six years. These elliptical, parallel landforms all point in the same direction. Natural depressions, many hold seasonal rains, and thus do they accommodate dragonflies, aka, snake doctors. I’ve seen so many blue darters in bays that their wings make a clattering rattling din as they zip to and fro over water. lily pads and sedges.

I have fond memories of dragonflies. My Grandmom Poland and I would be fishing in a pond and she told me more than once that when a snake doctor lands on my cork it brings good luck. You’re sure to catch a fish. Dragonflies often perched on the tip of my fishing pole. I considered that good luck too.

The woman I spoke with is right about dragonflies in one aspect. They come in many sizes and colors and are, indeed, beautiful. However, if you’re a gnat or a mosquito, to see a dragonfly is to see the angel of death. Well, that’s fine with me. Feast on those pests all you want. Patrol the air and wreak havoc on them. Just leave the lightning bugs alone.

Tom Poland is the author of 12 books and more than 1,000 magazine features. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” Visit Poland’s website at tompoland.net or email him at tompol@earthlink.net.