Garden Damsels and Dragons

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis) damsel fly.

A thread-slender eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis) damsel fly.

The early morning garden is a place of shadows and peace. Cardinals, goldfinches, mourning doves and house wrens ring out their song in neighborhood trees. Already, bumblebees work the flowers — bluebells, bee balm, hyssop and milkweed — buzzing softly.  Almost camouflaged in the deep green shadows, a tiny damselfly perches atop a milkweed leaf. An eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), its slender body, less than an inch long, is mint green, blue and black. The wings are folded over its back in damselfly style.

Across the backyard, a much larger dragonfly relative hangs from the edge of a hosta leaf, wings held away from its body horizontally. It is a green darner (Anax junius), one of the largest dragonflies in the world at three inches in length and with a wingspan of more than four inches. Its spring-green head and thorax hide it among the hosta. It “wing-whirs”, or rapidly vibrates its wings to warm up its flight muscles — and that movement catches my eye and reveals its presence.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest dragonflies.

A common green darner (Anax junius) is one of the largest surviving dragonflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies are members of the order Odonata, which means “toothed ones”. Unlike the peaceable bumblebees, they are fierce predators, hunting for small insects in the garden and eating many pests. Odonata are descended from some of Earth’s most ancient creatures. Fossils of ancient dragonfly ancestors (Protodonata) date back 325 million years. Scientists believe that bees evolved more recently — about 120 million years ago; the oldest bee fossil discovered so far is about 100 million years old. Both insect families contribute to a healthy garden.

 

Rainy Evening Gift

The backyard was lush and green after the week’s heavy rain. The air felt chilly and damp as I picked up windfalls from our beacon apple tree.  Soaked, bedraggled bumble bees and long-horned bees clung to Joe-Pye blossoms and the undersides of leaves.  Only a few crickets chirped in the unusually cool August evening air.  As I reached into the garden to pull some weeds, I felt a fluttering against my fingers and heard the slightest rustle of wings.  Barely grasping my fingertips was a beautiful green dragonfly —a common green darner.  Its aqua-green thorax and dark maroon abdomen hinted that it was probably a female or juvenile.  I thought it was injured, or perhaps dying. Gently, I held my hand next to some sedum plants.  The dragonfly struggled onto the flower buds and I left it for the night.

Common Green Darner (Anax Junius).

Common Green Darner (Anax junius).

greendarner2a

In the morning, the green darner was gone.  I found no scattered wings or chitin, no other remains in the garden to indicate that it had been eaten. I believe that the sun’s warmth revived it.  Since then, I’ve glimpsed a large dragonfly zooming over the garden on several different days; perhaps it is the same one. I hope that it lives to make the long migration flight south to the Gulf Cost in September.

 

Autumn Meadowhawk

The late afternoon September sun is warm and soothing.  Cicadas whine loudly and a monarch butterfly nectars in our patch of sweet Joe-Pye.  But another garden critter catches my eye this afternoon:  the yellow-legged meadowhawk dragonfly.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Adult male autumn meadowhawks are red with few or no markings on the abdomen.

Also known as autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum), their bodies flash gem-like red, orange and amber in the sun. Perched on daylily stalks, balloon flower seed pods and hosta stems, each dragonfly swivels its head watching for flies, small bees and wasps, and other soft-bodied insects.

Adult autumn meadowhawks are present from August into early November in Minnesota.  The species is common across much of the United States and southern Canada, and often is seen in yards and gardens. Their yellow or brownish legs set them apart from other types of meadowhawks, which have black or dark-striped legs. They also have minimal or no black marks on the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

Females are distinguished by the ovipositor visible near the end of the abdomen.

When I see a meadowhawk flash in the garden, I think of the ancient history of these creatures. Scientists believe that early dragonflies (Protodonata) first inhabited Earth 300 million years ago.  They speculate that Earth’s warmer temperatures, and the atmosphere’s higher oxygen content, contributed to insects growing larger than today.  Fossils show that some ancient dragonflies had a wingspan of two feet. Today, most of the larger dragonflies have a wingspan of two to five inches, and meadowhawks are smaller yet at about one inch.  What they lack in size they make up for in the sparkle of sun on their transparent wings and the jeweled designs of their bodies.  And, after watching a meadowhawk grind up a small bee in its jaws, I’m glad they’ve evolved into smaller predators!

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk's wings.  The ovipositor and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identifies it as a female autumn meadowhawk.

Sunlight captures the beauty of this meadowhawk’s wings. The ovipositor, yellowish legs and the light red abdomen with faint black markings identify it as a female.

Autumn Garden Creatures

Last Friday was a golden day with gentle sun, temps in the 70s and a southerly wind.  I walked at lunchtime and spent a few minutes in our back garden observing insects, birds and chipmunks.  It was the final day before a strong Canadian cold front and soaking rains moved in — and probably my last chance until spring to enjoy some of the garden’s inhabitants:

Autumn meadowhawk dragonflies, which fly late into autumn, still patrolled the garden.  The reddish-colored mature females, with clear wings tinted amber at the base and red spots at the top, added jewel-like color to the changing garden.

A male autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A female autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) suns on a stone wall in the garden.

A celery looper moth visited the garden from morning until dusk each day for more than a week.  Though it’s not colorful, the contrast between the chocolate-brown wings and the bright silvery-white curved markings makes it glow in the sunlight.  Though looper larvae can be agricultural pests, the adults pollinate many varieties of plants.  This one seemed to prefer Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

A celery looper (   ) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A celery looper (Anagrapha falcifera) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

Celery looper

Side view of a celery looper moth.

Syrphid flies, also known as hover flies or flower flies, are small insects that zip between flowers much quicker than bees and wasps.  Syrphid flies are bee and wasp look-a-likes, but they don’t sting or bite!  Many species are helpful in the garden for two reasons:  The adults pollinate flowers and the larvae eat aphids and leaf hoppers, which cause a lot of damage and disease in plants.  They are called hover flies because they often hover in midair over the garden before zooming off in a new direction — sometimes flying backwards.  They are known as flower flies for their pollinating presence in the autumn garden.

A Syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

A syrphid fly, (Eristalis) pollinates native goldenrod.

Another species of Syrphid fly pollinates garden asters.

Another species of syrphid fly (Helophilus) pollinates garden asters.

Hidden among the garden plants, an eastern chipmunk gathered seeds to store for winter use in its nearby den.  There’s a stable chipmunk population in our urban neighborhood, in spite of many gardeners’ attempts to eradicate the rodents.  At least the chipmunks retire to their dens until spring, unlike squirrels, which raid the garden during the growing season and the suet feeder during the winter months!

An eastern chipmunk surveys the backyard from its perch on our back steps.

An eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus) surveys the yard from its perch on our back steps.

The backyard bird population is changing as many bird species migrate south.  For example, most of the warblers, orioles and swallows have left; ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows are passing through from further north.  Daily visitors to our garden, trees and hedges include northern cardinals, blue jays, American goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, American robins and a brown creeper. I don’t have a telephoto lens yet, so I don’t photograph many birds.  An excellent website with photos, key facts, bird calls and other information is allaboutbirds.org.

Lastly, bumble bees and honey bees nectared on the Sedum ‘autumn joy’ and garlic chives. (Earlier in the summer, I pruned the sedum to different degrees so that it would continue to bloom late into autumn.)  The sedum and asters were the main attraction for insects last week.  I haven’t seen either bee species since the weather turned cold and rainy.  I miss their industrious presence and look forward to their return next spring.

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A honey bee nectars on garlic chive blossoms (Allium tuberosum).

A bumble bee (Bombus) nectars on Sedum 'autumn joy'.

A bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) nectars on Sedum ‘autumn joy’.

Lake Darner Dragonfly

I love dragonflies for their aerial acrobatics, beautiful colors and ancient presence — they’ve flown Earth’s skies for about 300 million years.  In Minnesota, a few species of large, colorful dragonflies are active into October.  Last week I found a darner (Aeshna) dragonfly sunning itself on a nearby cabin.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

A lake darner dragonfly (Aeshna eremita) rests in the sun.

Called darners for the resemblance of their long abdomen to a darning needle, the blue or mosaic darners can be confusing to tell apart.  I believe the one I photographed is a lake darner (Aeshna eremita), based on the notched side stripe, the vivid greenish-blue jewel-like coloration of the stripes, its length (about three inches) and its vertical perching position.  It flew away before I could get close enough to see its facial markings.  Lake darners are native to Canada and the northern United States, and are the largest species of North American darner.  They prey on mosquitoes, wasps, mayflies and most other kinds of soft-bodied insects.

Related Websites:

The Dragonfly Website includes a great overview of dragonfly facts in its “Frequently Asked Questions” section.

ARKive.org features a profile and photos of the lake darner, along with thousands of other plant and animal species.