Beware, Hilton Head – here there be dragons.
Hilton Head is full of lagoons – and during the summer, lagoons are full of dragonflies. These conspicuous insects come in diverse shapes, sizes and colors, and together with their slender-bodied cousins, the damselflies, are easy to spot as they cruise along the shoreline or swoop over deeper waters. South Carolina is host to over 150 species; worldwide, there are more than 5,000.
A lagoon full of dragonflies resembles a busy airport. The more delicate damselflies flutter near the water’s surface. Small and medium-sized dragonflies hover and dart above them, while the biggest and fastest species claim the highest flight paths. Some dragonflies have been clocked at speeds of over 35 mph.
Dragonflies come to lagoons not mainly to feed, but to reproduce. Some males set up exclusive breeding areas. The owner defends his territory vigorously, patrolling the borders or perching on favored look-out sites, scanning the water for intruding males or potential mates.
Mating in dragonflies and damselflies is bizarre and unique. Using claspers at the tip of his abdomen (rear end) the male seizes the female by her head, or just behind it, and together they fly off “in tandem.” Then the female bends her abdomen forward and clasps the male from underneath, behind his last pair of legs. While in this “wheel position,” the female receives sperm that the male has stashed in a special organ up front. She keeps these sperm in her own storage sac at her abdomen tip.
Fertilization and egg-laying usually follow soon afterward.
There’s more. A female often mates more than once, so her storage sac can contain contributions from different partners. However, many dragonfly males can remove or displace the sperm of previous males before inserting their own. Also, males may stay attached to their mates during egg-laying, or else hover nearby. This way they can keep the female from re-mating and protect their paternal “investment” until the eggs are laid.
The eggs – laid in the water or aquatic plants – hatch into drab underwater creatures (larvae) that look utterly different from the adults. Voracious predators, larvae seize insects, small fish, and even tadpoles with a claw-like “lower lip” that pops out via a hinge. Larvae can shoot forward quickly by jet propulsion, squirting water out their rear ends. Over several weeks or months, after shedding their “skins,” larvae morph into graceful winged adults.
Contrary to myth, adult dragonflies and damselflies don’t bite or sting. Among our most beneficial and intriguing insects, they’re menacing only to the small prey they catch adeptly in mid-air – including lots of mosquitoes.