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The elegance of the dragonfly

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“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies ignite,” wrote poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Recently, the risk has been kingfishers literally catching fire and dragonflies crashing into the flames. Many European wetlands are no longer humid. Reedbeds and riparian vegetation have been burned by forest fires in some places.

For me, this summer has been too hot and dry to be called “happy days”. These dreamy moments, ideally spent on the lush shores of rivers and lakes, are named after the kingfisher himself, whose English name is also a traditional name for dragonflies. There is also a visual correspondence. A small bird flies upstream, flashing electric blue plumage on its back. A shining insect darts among the iris leaves.

The heatwave has been detrimental to wetland animals, including those that depend on ponds in our gardens and land. These puddles are mostly too small and their water too calm to support kingfishers. These are better meeting places for homonymous insects.

But garden hose bans now prohibit many UK households from filling in the natural ponds that wildlife organizations still urge them to create. When these dry up, they are curtains for the inhabitants, including the dragonfly nymphs.

Cooler, wetter weather improves their chances of survival. But prohibitions always irritate me. My local utility, Thames Water, dumps nearly a quarter of its H₂O into the ground while siphoning off large sums for financial engineering. There is an exemption for ponds containing “captive fish”. But experts warn pond keepers against introducing them, lest they eat everything else.

So here’s the thing: you may have worked a lot or spent a lot to create a natural pond. But unless it contains a single lazy goldfish, you must be prepared for the death of the animals and plants in it.

I fill my pond when I need it because a school of sticklebacks live there. These will be referred to as captives until they manage to evolve the legs and pause. I compensate for water consumption by not washing my car. I believe I have the strength of character to withstand this ordeal.

Sticklebacks likely eat small dragonfly larvae, experts warn. But as they grow into miniature aliens, complete with bolt-gun jaws, they start eating the fish. A balance is reached.

Nymphs have an unusual ability: they can move forward by blowing water from their buttocks. The contrast is with the bosses of the water companies, who only talk about this part of the body.

In Western European folk belief, dragonflies are associated with evil, like many other harmless and helpful creatures. “Devil’s Darning Needles” was among the unflattering names. Old Nick would have ridden one, as Jimi Hendrix, the chemistry-inspired rock god, later claimed to do.

Conversely, dragonflies are auspicious in the culture of Japan – or “Dragonfly Island” as an ancient story called it. They represent happiness and success. Samurai adorned their armor with dragonflies, hoping to become as fast and agile. The garbage collectors of Iwata must share this aspiration: dragonflies adorn the covers of the city’s sewers.

I’m with the Japanese on dragonflies. When a glamorous species makes a brief appearance, it lights up the garden. It’s like being at a party where a celebrity makes a brief, dramatic appearance. The motivations of the visitor will be mercenary. The thrill is unavoidable.

Large dragonflies visit garden ponds at this time of year to lay eggs. The electric blue Emperors and the tiger-striped Southern Peddlers that come to our garden seem irresistibly drawn to human ankles. Seems like a bad place to leave your offspring. Pam Taylor of the British Dragonfly Society explains that they check spawning locations by touch. When they find a plant at the water’s edge, they make a slit in it and lay eggs in it.

These large predators do not stay long in our gardens. Better hunting around streams and lakes attracts them. Red and yellow common darters are more reliable garden companions in August and September. A plant stem provides a perch from which a male can emerge to fight rivals, court females, and capture prey.

This year’s Sentinel fought a losing battle to hunt down a couple who had previously found themselves attached. The male seized the female by the neck with his tail. They accelerated with impressive coordination, like a well-matched couple on a tandem bicycle. Each time the defender took a break, he would drop another clutch of eggs into the water.

Common damselflies usually breed earlier in the year. This can give these lighter, slower-moving insects some protection against their fearsome cousins. Scientists have estimated the mortality rate of hunted dragonflies at 97%.

Kingfishers are also effective predators, given how quickly adults capture minnows for their young. My colleague Claer Barrett swears the pleading call from the baby birds she watched recently was “Deliveroo! Deliveroo!”

This brood survived the drought, just like the dragonflies lurking in my pond. Let’s hope for peaceful days filled with these two creatures next summer, instead of another drought.

Jonathan Guthrie is Lex’s boss

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