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The Delightful Dragonfly: Facts, Fables and Spiritual Insight

Ila lives in the Garden State with her family and four chickens. She has been growing produce and perennials for 20 years, and recommends gardening for food and fun, but not for fortune.
Published: September 8, 2022
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Male eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), a dragonfly photographed in the Town of Skaneateles, Onondaga County, New York. (Image: R. A. Nonenmacher via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5)

With wings like a fairy’s and colors to match, it’s no wonder the dragonfly is mired in myth and superstition. The magical tales revolving around dragonflies are as varied as the lands in which they are found, which includes everywhere except Antarctica. Even more alluring, the reality of these remarkable insects is somewhat stranger than fiction.

Fascinating dragonfly facts

Dragonflies are four-winged, wetland insects of the order Odonata — meaning “toothed one,” infraorder Anisopters — meaning “unequal,” referring to the difference in size of their wing pairs — which includes thousands of species across the globe.

While dragonfly sizes today can range from a tiny wingspan of 0.6 inches in China’s scarlet dwarf (Nannophya pygmaea) to the whopping 6.2 inches of Australia’s giant petaltail (Petalura ingentissima), they are all dwarfed by their prehistoric ancestors. Fossil records of Griffenflies (Meganisoptera) of the Carboniferous period (360-300 million years ago) depict distinctly dragonfly-shaped creatures with wingspans surpassing two feet! 

Scientists suspect that jumbo insects gradually reduced in size as atmospheric oxygen became less abundant throughout the earth’s history, but these enduring insects have prized traits that have enabled them not only to survive, but thrive. 

Fossil remains of Meganeura, a giant dragonfly-like insect from hundreds of millions of years ago. (Image: Tylwyth via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dragonfly superpowers

Dragonflies are such amazing flyers that experts in robotics have attempted to mimic their movement with modern technology. They can move each of their four wings independently up, down, forward, and back; enabling them to fly straight in any direction — including backwards. They can stop in mid-air, make sharp turns, and hover. Beating their wings around 30 times per second, dragonflies can reach speeds above 30 miles per hour.

Dragonflies have extraordinarily large eyes that meet in the middle, and take in so much visual information that processing it requires an estimated 80 percent of their brain power. Each compound eye has up to 28,000 ommatidia, or lenses, giving them a 360 degree field of vision. In comparison, humans can see only 170 degrees, 100 of which is our peripheral vision. Dragonfly sight surpasses ours in spectrum as well, as they have the ability to see ultraviolet rays. 

Like many insects, dragonflies thermoregulate. By careful positioning of their bodies and strategic use of their wings, they can maximize or minimize their exposure to the sun and even generate heat, thus keeping their ectothermic (cold blooded) bodies at an optimal operating temperature.

Some dragonflies migrate in response to the weather patterns and availability of food, covering incredible distances. The green darner (Anax junius), common in North America, flies south in swarms each fall, and northward in the spring. The greatest migration distance covered by any insect is achieved by the globe skimmer (Pantala flavescens), which follows the seasonal rains between India and Africa — a 11,000 mile trip.

The globe skimmer is a long-distance flier, migrating even further than the monarch butterfly. (Image: Basile Morin via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dragonfly life cycle

Believe it or not, dragonflies spend most of their lives in water. Eggs laid on the surface of the water hatch into aquatic nymphs, which will molt between six and 16 times, taking up to four years or longer, depending on the species and climate. Dragonfly nymphs eat other insect larvae, worms, tadpoles, and even each other. The adults, which emerge from the water for one last molt — gaining wings in the metamorphosis — are also carnivorous. 

The relatively few adults that pass the perilous teneral stage — where their bodies are weak and awkward, rendering them highly susceptible prey — will consume their own body weight in other insects daily. This can add up to hundreds of mosquitoes — one of their favorite foods.

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Dragonflies spend most of their lives as nymphs, sustained by the larvae of other insects in the shallow water of ponds or lakes. (Image: DaveHuth via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Dragonflies use their legs in flight to catch their prey. They have a flexible jaw that can open to the size of their head, with serrated mandibles that act like teeth. These proficient hunters have a 95 percent success rate! The adult stage lasts about only three to six months, during which they reproduce and complete the life cycle. 

It should be noted that dragonflies and damselflies are not male and female counterparts of the same insect. Damselflies belong to the infraorder Zyogptera, are generally of slighter build, and move in a more fluttery fashion. For identification purposes, one can compare the eyes and the wings. While dragonfly eyes nearly meet in the middle, the damselfly has distinctly separate eyes. The resting position of a dragonfly features wings held away from the body like those of an airplane, while the damselfly keeps its wings together over the back.

Superstitions around the world

Since dragonflies are found in every habitable area on Earth, each culture has its own interpretation of these fascinating changelings. In most of the world, dragonflies have traditionally been seen as positive omens or messengers from the spirit world. Some old world superstitions, however, mark them as frightful incarnations of the devil himself.

China

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Falun Gong practitioners revive traditional Chinese culture with a dragon dance during a street parade. (Image: Mihnea Stanciu via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Although the Chinese character 龍 (long), meaning dragon, is not represented in the characters 蜻蜓 (qingting) for dragonfly, the two beasts are nonetheless linked by way of association. The Chinese dragon is highly regarded as a symbol of power, good fortune, and nobility, as Chinese emperors were believed to be descendants of divine dragons. In the world of skin art, 龍 may be the most popular Chinese character tattoo. 

Unlike the wicked, winged western dragon, Chinese dragons are flightless, and live in the water. The airborne dragonfly is seen as the soul of a dragon, and also called a “flying dragon.” Seeing a dragonfly is considered lucky, and if it flies into one’s home it will bring blessings to the members of the household. The dragonfly is discerning, however, and will only enter a home where there is harmony in the family.

In Feng shui, China’s ancient practice of geomancy, the dragon is connected with summer and the continual changes in nature, symbolizing spiritual growth and embracing new beginnings. In practical terms, the dragonfly was likely appreciated by China’s early and abundant population of farmers, as the insect predator provided excellent pest control.

Japan

Similarly, in Japan, the dragonfly has an excellent reputation. Associated with joy, courage, and success, the dragonfly is often featured in haiku. It is even linked with Japan’s origin story regarding the country’s first emperor. According to legend, Emperor Jimmu, when bitten by a mosquito, was saved from further harm by a dragonfly who came to the rescue and devoured the offender.

There is an annual Buddhist custom in Japan of welcoming the spirits of ancestors to visit the living during the festival of Obon. The mid-August ceremonies take place when dragonflies are abundant, and some believe they carry the spirits on their backs. Others see them as the spirits themselves, and dragonflies are widely welcomed into the home.

Across much of Europe, the dragonfly is reputed to be a sinister character. Clearly, from the position of the eyes, the creepy-looking insect pictured here is a damselfly — not a dragonfly. (Image: Kevin Grieve via pexels)

Europe

Starting perhaps with a Romanian myth, the dragonfly became symbolic of black magic and death through most of Europe. It is said that the Devil transformed into a flying insect to cross a lake when he was refused a ride in a fisherman’s boat. This was the origin of dragonflies, and they are seen as the devil’s helpers.  

A similar tale exists in Germany, where a haughty and wicked princess indulged in galloping recklessly about the kingdom on her horse. A little man whom she refused to talk to cursed her to be forever joined to her horse, and the pair became the original dragonfly. 

In Sweden, the dragonfly is always on the hunt for bad characters. If one flies around your neck, it is likely checking the purity of your soul, and will take you away for punishment if you are found to be lacking in virtue. Also known as the “devil’s darning needle,” a dragonfly may sew up any facial orifice of a sleeping naughty child.

In the UK, the devil’s darning needle is to stitch up snakes (symbolic of the devil) when they get injured. 

The Americas

Although some of the sinister symbolism followed European colonists to the new world — with a regional fear in Iowa of having one’s fingers and toes sewn together when slumbering out of doors  —  Native Americans saw the insects as good omens and protectors.  

One origin story depicts the dragonfly as a dragon that was tricked by a coyote into shapeshifting, but was unable to return to its original shape. They symbolize change and expedition, and their images are often featured in jewelry and on totems, teepees and pottery.

Native cultures also believe the insects have health benefits, with their spirits entering the body to offer medical assistance.

Given their strong association with water, dragonflies are known to predict weather and fishing conditions. High-flying dragonflies mean heavy rain is coming, and when a dragonfly alights on your rod, the fishing will be good. The color of the dragonfly might even tell you which fish will be biting!

Spiritual story

A well-loved story by an unknown author depicts the life of a dragonfly as a spiritual journey that can only be realized in the midst of delusion. (Image:Gao Qipei via Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

There was once a small community of water beetles that lived below the lily pads in a murky pond. They lived simply, were satisfied with meeting their daily needs, and such was life.

Every now and then, they would lose a member of their community when the individual would inexplicably climb up the stem of a lily pad and disappear forever. This was very troubling to the water beetles, and one of them finally suggested that the next time someone found himself climbing up to the surface, he would be sure to come back and tell the others what he found beyond the limits of their watery world.

They all agreed, and, as luck would have it, the very beetle who made the suggestion soon found himself crawling up the stem of a water lily. When he reached the surface he was so exhausted that he lay down to rest before taking a look around. During his slumber, he grew wings and, upon awakening, was so surprised that he forgot his promise. He took to the skies and marveled at the limitless world around him. 

As he flew over his little pond, he remembered his friends and made haste to fulfill his promise; but when he reached the water he found himself unable to enter. He understood at once that they could only know the boundless delights of this new world if they found it for themselves. 

The spiritual journey may be lonely and full of uncertainty, but it will take you to heights you never imagined.