Take on Nature: Dragonflies and damselflies are reminders of life's brevity - and the importance of enjoying the moment

The Common Hawker Dragonfly, Aeshna juncea, can be seen around our bogs, lakes and streams
Stephen Colton

I have had the great pleasure of the seeing Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader live on several occasions. Her vast catalogue of work, wide-ranging musical styles and playful performances are a joy to experience, so I wasn't surprised her song Dragonflies entered my head recently as I watched a Common Hawker Dragonfly, flying in powerful, purposeful fashion over the shallow water of a sheltered bay near Gortahork, on Donegal's north-west coast.

Common around our bogs, lakes and streams Aeshna juncea is one of our larger species of this insect. The male has a dark body with blue eyes, light blue spots, and yellow specks along its abdomen with yellow stripes on the thorax.

In the female the abdomen and thorax are much browner with yellow marks while the eyes are also brown. Having two pairs of strong, transparent wings, dragonflies are remarkable fliers with the ability to hover, change direction quickly and fly sideways or backwards.

They and their much finer relatives, Damselflies, were amongst the first winged insects to evolve, with their ancestors dating back to more than 300 million years ago, predating the dinosaurs.

Collectively called Odonato, from the Ancient Greek for 'tooth' because of their tooth like mandibles, both insects share key characteristics apart from their aerial acrobatics and often iridescent colours.

Their life cycles consist of three stages. First, the eggs, which are laid inside aquatic plant stems or in water mud, followed by the larval stage, which can have many phases, lasting anything from a few months up to two years.

During this period, they are carnivorous, feasting on tadpoles, small fish and other larvae. They are referred to as nymphs or 'naiads', from the Greek, naein, to flow, having featured in Greek mythology as long-lived goddesses who dwell in clear waters.

Eventually the larva will leave the water by climbing up some vegetation and as Tennyson says, "Come from the wells where he did lie", to "rent the veil/Of his old husk from head to tail".

The insect pushes out of the larval skin, a process which can last several hours, to finally emerge as an adult dragonfly. After a period of drying and hardening of the wings and body, the new adults or 'tenerals' begin life on the wing, hunting other flying insects.

The life expectancy for most is short, sometimes only a week or two or possibly up to 10 weeks, something Reader uses in her song to underline our own transient lives on this earth, saying, "As soon as we're here, we disappear, like dragonflies."

On the beauty of our world, she further adds how, "nature can sing such beautiful wings" and "How can something so fragile leave us humble".

Before their adult lives end, the male and female dragonflies return to water to mate and begin the process of delivering next year's generation.

It's not surprising that an insect which has been dancing around the skies of our planet for so long, features large in the mythology and stories of nations across the world.

In Celtic lore, the dragonfly is directly linked to the fairy folk, who are believed to use the insect as an airborne horse-like mode of transport to get from one place to another.

In Native American culture dragonflies are symbols of healing and transformation with some tribes naming them 'snake doctors' because of their ability to help cure sick snakes.

Reader, in her song also emphasises how beautiful things, are "gone in the wink of an eye".

Maybe our dragonflies and damselflies, with their short adult lives are reminders of life's brevity and the importance of enjoying the moment.

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