This is based on an interview/article that first appeared in Louise Lacey's "Growing Native Newsletter", published Winter 2001


Kathy Biggs on
Dragonflies, Dragonfly Ponds and how She Became an Author

Well, it all got started when I read an article that said you could change your swimming pool into a garden pond. I was tired of throwing chemicals into the pool and taking leaves out. So, we took down the above ground walls of our pool and built a garden pond. It sits in the hole that was left where the deep end of the swimming pool had been. We did this in May, an excellent time it turned out. Little did I know that I was doing everything just right for the dragonflies.

We hadn't had the pond there but a day or two when a gorgeous big red dragonfly arrived. He would let us get so close that we could see his abdomen expanding and contracting with his breathing. We were completely taken in by his gorgeous eyes and his general beauty and he became our pond mascot. My niece had come to help us complete the pond. At first she was afraid of him, but soon she learned to love him too. That's really how it all got started.

When other dragonflies began coming to the pond, I really started paying attention. I'm a birder, so it was only natural for me to want to identify them. I got out my California guide to insects, and the Audubon field guide to insects, and it quickly became apparent that I had more species of dragonflies at the pond than either of those books showed for our area in California.

I thought, "I'll go to the library and find out more!" But there weren't any guides to dragonflies there. I went to bookstores, but there weren't any dragonfly guides there either.

I finally found my answers on the Internet: one person, Ron Lyons, had compiled a list of the dragonflies in California. Ron's a gypsy now; he and his wife have retired and are living in their motor home. But at the time he was a volunteer at the Chula Vista Nature Center in southern California where he led 'bug walks'. I thank my lucky stars for him and his list.

Taking those dragonfly names, I did a search on the Internet again. I would find a site where somebody had taken pictures of a species, maybe like Blair Nikula in Cape Cod. Then I'd save the image on my computer and print the image out for myself on paper along with the name of the dragonfly and any information I found out about it. That's how I ended up making myself my own personal dragonfly guide. That first year many a page had only a name with no information or photo. That was in 1996.

Now, I'd done all this research since I had this beautiful pond that was full of native plants and the dragonflies were coming and they were so gorgeous. I wanted to identify them. I knew I needed a guide and it dawned on me that other people also might want to know more about dragonflies. So just before our youngest son went off to college, I had him show me how to make a web site. I'm a teacher and it was just natural for me to want to share the knowledge I was gaining. So I began creating a Web site for the California Dragonflies and that's what I did all that winter. Little did I know it would take over my life and that I would become an author!

I started the Web site by adding common names to the list of scientific names that Ron Lyons had compiled. These names didn't even exist before November of '96. A far-sighted group, the DSA (Dragonfly Society of the Americas) didn't want to have happen what had happened with butterflies and plants - where wherever you went there's a different common name for each. So the DSA put together a naming committee, which came up with names for all the dragonflies in the United States, and then the committee came back to the membership, which voted on them. The selected names are working beautifully and I was able to use them both on my Web site and in my book. Aside from the Green- eyed Darner, the Blue-eyed Darner, the Big Red Skimmer and the Blue-tailed Fly, there weren't many common names used before this. The committee tried to pick names that went with each species' appearance or behavior. An example would be the Widow Skimmer. It has black on the inside half of its wings as if it were wearing a cloak for mourning. I think that the naming committee was very successful.

I was in love with dragonflies, and they were slowly taking over my life. That first year we just looked at them on our pond. Then, wherever we went, we'd see them. I started getting messages from viewers of my Web site who were also interested in dragonflies. One of them was Tim Manolis in Sacramento, who proposed that we go out into the state and look for as many dragonflies as we could find.

So, by 1998, that's what we were doing! In the mountains we saw species that don't occur in the valleys, and in the desert we saw species that don't occur in the mountains or the valleys. There were some that were more eastern and some that were more western in their distribution. We went to all those places and learned so much. My husband and I were both having a blast. It was so much fun.

So in the summers we chased the dragonflies all over and during the winters I studied them. I learned so much ('learning keeps you young'). I learned that Odonata is the word for the scientific order that all dragonflies belong to. It refers to the toothed ones, because even though they don't have teeth like ours, they have serrated mandibles, which are considered toothed. Now, if I go much further with this we'll quickly get out of the realm of what I know, because I'm not a scientist who studies them under a microscope, I'm an enthusiast, an aficionado who enjoys seeing them and learning about them and sharing about them. So almost enuf!

I learned that some things can be confusing about dragonflies. Like, in the English vernacular, the word dragonfly can mean just the dragonfly, or it can mean both the dragonfly and the damselfly. To get around that, I'm going to explain a couple of scientific terms: The order is Odonata, and there are two suborders, the Zygoptera - the damselflies, and the Anisoptera - the dragonflies. Of course there are a lot of other confusing terms and body parts too.

The Anisoptera, the dragonfly, body is about the size of your baby finger (or if you're large, to a kid's baby finger!). They have two huge eyes on the front of their face, which are usually touching each other, or even fused together forming a seam. They hold their wings out flat, and are big, powerful fliers, catching their prey on the wing.

The damselflies, or Zygoptera, are the little guys. I think of them as being like a matchstick or a needle. Usually when perched they hold their wings alongside their body or up over their body, closed. You'll see them down in the grass flitting about, gleaning insects off the underside of leaves. Their eyes are separated, far apart, giving them a hammer-headed appearance. That's how I tell people how to tell dragonflies and damselflies apart.

You're liable to see both dragons and damsels at the same place and at the same time, but never all the species together at once. So far, I've had two dozen species at my pond, which is only about 20 feet by 24 feet. But, maybe eight species or less will come in during any one day's time. They can be extremely territorial. They can coexist, but if you've got one male at a pond, he's going to try to fight off every other male. He can be effective until there get to be about five or six other males, and then he can't fight them all at once.

The little Cardinal Meadowhawk that dominates my pond tries to fight everybody away. I wish he wouldn't do that because I see other dragonflies arrive and then he chases them off. And I want to watch those other ones. But he's there at the pond edge because he's waiting for a female, hoping for a chance to mate with her when she comes in.

Once we had another Cardinal Meadowhawk that learned how to outsmart the dominant one. This one would rest off about 20 feet from the pond in the nearby foliage, figuring out which direction the female was coming from and then he would intercepts her (laughter).

The male has claspers at the back of his abdomen that he uses to grab the female with. He grabs her behind her eyeballs (since they can't hold hands!). You'll see them towing in tandem this way. When the interloping Cardinal Meadowhawk grabbed the female first, there was nothing the previously dominant one could do. He would hover about six inches above them while she was ovipositing (egg laying). He would try touching them but he couldn't exactly pull them apart. He'd try to get the other male to let go so he could get a hold of her but it never worked. He just had to watch.

Dragonflies are mostly aquatic insects. Once their eggs are laid in the water, they'll hatch a week or two later. Dragonfly nymph will live underwater for about a year, the major part of their lives. A dragonfly egg that is laid in May will emerge and become a flying dragonfly the next May, approximately. A damselfly may have two broods in a year, so an egg laid in May may emerge in September, and the adult may lay an egg in October, which hatches the next May.

They are not parental at all. Their survival is dependent on laying a few eggs here, a few eggs there, and keeping moving. The more different places they can put some eggs, the better their chances are of getting some babies to hatch out. So once the eggs are laid, that's it. The parent may live another couple of weeks and lay even more eggs. They don't die immediately, but they don't live long.

The nymph of dragonflies and damselflies are totally different looking from each other, but they eat much the same things with prey size being the main difference.

The dragonfly nymph looks like a little dragon. It's ugly and fierce looking. If you can picture a little dragon crawling around underwater that's about an inch long at maturity, with a head with big eyes and then a thorax and the abdomen, you'll have the picture. Oh, they are fierce! I do enjoy watching them. I occasionally will catch them (accidentally) when I'm cleaning the pond. Some people put them in an aquarium. But the trouble is, if you put ten in there, you'll only have one left in the end. Cannibalism. They don't care what they eat, they just eat.

Dragonfly nymphs have something fantastic, an arm folded back underneath their jaw that is hinged, called a labium. They can project it out at lightning speed. It's as if we had a spear chained to us that we could throw out to catch prey and then reel the prey back in with it.

Nymphs of the Clubtail dragonfly family clamber about in a layer of gravel on a stream bottom waiting for the river to wash the little critters they eat along to where they are.

The Darner nymphs can jet propel through the water by squirting water through their rectums. All dragonfly nymphs can do this to some extent, but the Darners have perfected it. They use it to escape predators and to chase prey, besides hunting by lurking in the underwater pond foliage.

Now, the Skimmer nymphs, like those which become the Big Red Skimmer (Flame Skimmer) and the Cardinal Meadowhawk, hide down in the leaf litter at the bottom of a pond or a pool alongside a stream and ambush prey from there.

Damselfly nymphs are thin, and they have these long gills at the end of their abdomen that they use to breathe air through. These gills look like three feathery appendages. The nymphs are only a half-inch long, gills and all. They also clamber about on pond vegetation.

When they're ready to emerge and become flying insects, both the damselfly and dragonfly nymph usually choose to crawl up a plant stem. What is so amazing to me is the difference between these guys and caterpillars. Caterpillars form a cocoon or a chrysalis, and a month or so goes by before it emerges as a butterfly. But with Odonata, they may spent a day right at the surface of the water, holding on to the stem of the plant they're going to emerge from. They don't eat for a day or two because that labium is having to be brought back into the body, becoming a regular jaw for the dragonfly after it emerges. All this actually happens very quickly, in just a day or so.

They have tiny claws on the end of their feet, and they hook those claws securely onto the plant stem. Then they gulp air and swell themselves up, and that makes the thorax-covering split open. They pull their head and their thorax and then their legs out first. They're stuck attached to the plant stem, and they hang from it while their legs harden up and become strong enough to grasp the plant. That takes about a half-hour in itself. Once that has happened, they flip forward and grab hold of the stem and pull themselves out, and then they start pumping up their wings and their body.

Above the water, the dragonfly becomes an air-breathing creature. After splitting his skin open, and crawling out of it, he now pumps up his wings, which have been in these little sheaths on his back. He does this much like a butterfly does when it emerges, and then he flies off just an hour after he crawled up the stem! That's really something!

Dragonflies like to emerge on cattails and pickerel-reed, or any emergent vegetation that's strong enough to support their body. My blue flag iris has been one of their favorite places on which to emerge in my pond. The Darners emerge at night as the darkness protects them. The Skimmers do it early in the morning.

The dragonfly's exoskeleton is called an exuvia. The dragonfly that came out of it will be approximately three times the size of the exuvia left behind. That's how mulch they expand their body. Usually a dragonfly's wingspan is even wider than the length of its total body. Most of them emerge at night, so we don't often get to see. But if you have a garden pond and you have the first warm evening after a cool spell in the late spring or early summer, you can go out with a flashlight and watch. Otherwise, look for the exuvia left behind the next morning.

Then, once they have become flying insects, they only live about a month more. When they very first emerge, they have to go away from the water to do what I call 'coloring up' or 'hardening up'. This is when their body becomes mature. If they stayed near the water, the other dragonflies that were already there would get in battles with them, and they would lose. Usually you'll see mostly mature males hanging around the water. This is because the minute females come to the water, they are ganged up upon by the guys who are there waiting for and fighting over them. So the females don't come in to the water until they're ready to lay their eggs.

Dragonflies were here before the dinosaurs. They were the very first flying creatures. Yet they appear pretty evolutionarily advanced to me. Insects in general have very unusual sex lives, but the dragonflies are the weirdest of the weird.

The interesting thing is, once a female comes in, the males can harass her, and they can grab her and hold her in tandem. But I always tell people that she can be courted against her will, but she cannot be raped, because she has to cooperate. Here's how it works:

Although the male produces his sperm at the end of his abdomen, as most insects do, he has a secondary sexual apparatus up under his second abdominal segment, a storage facility, so to speak. He has to move his sperm from the tip of his abdomen to this storage facility first, before he can mate with a female; it is sort of like he has to mate with himself first!

Then, when he's towing the female, she has to bend forward and put the tip of her abdomen up to that secondary apparatus to mate with him. She can't be made to do this; it has to be voluntary. You can see dragonflies flying around in this wheel position. Some of them are in that mating position for only a few seconds, and for some this goes on for a few hours. The longer time would probably entail perching, but it can be done totally on the wing and they can fly long distances this way and even evade predators while 'in the wheel.'

When mating is going on for a long time, it's not that the male is actually spending that long inseminating the female. Instead this secondary apparatus can be thought of as being sort of like a Swiss army knife - something with several functions or tools. He first uses a tool to clean out the sperm in her that might still be left behind from any previously mating she might have had with any other male. That way each male makes sure that any eggs that the female lays are only fertilized by his sperm. That's pretty advanced, I think.

The female can then be seen, still in tandem, tapping her abdomen along the water (if it's one of the Skimmers) because often the male is not about to let go of her for fear that some other guy would grab her and clean his sperm out! In a few species the guys hover above the ovipositing female and guard her that way.

All the different families of dragonflies have different habitats that they prefer, and they have all different strategies. That's part of the joy of watching them, figuring out which ones have which strategies. Where is the male if he's not in tandem with her as she oviposits? Is he six inches above her? Is he 20 feet above? Is he up in the tree watching? But almost always the male will be somewhere nearby, guarding her (or at least his eggs!).

As flying adults, dragonflies catch mosquitoes and gnats so they're very beneficial. As underwater critters they're also eating things such as mosquito nymphs and tiny fish and pollywogs and almost microscopic life.

There's also a kind of dragonfly that's called the Clubtail. They prefer more moving water. People aren't as familiar with them because they have excellent camouflage, and you find them mostly far from civilization on pristine streams and rivers.

Of course, we're all most familiar with the kinds of dragonflies that oviposit into still waters, such as our ponds. And that's why I consider it fascinating when I clean mine. I never consider it a chore. I'm always keeping my eyes open to see what's around, and looking at the litter I'm taking out. I want to caution people with ponds against keeping them meticulously clean, because by doing that they are removing a lot of the Odonata nymphs and eggs, etc. I often find that if I pick the leaves out of the debris net by hand, there'll be a nymph hiding there. I always put it back in the water. Pond cleaning is a treasure hunt for me; part of the joy.

In my pond I have creeping water primrose, which is preferred by the types of dragonflies and that use ovipositors to insert their eggs into plant leaves and stems (Darners do this) and by all the damselflies. It's by far their favorite. I also have blue flag, and parrot's feather, mare's-tail, horsetail, cattail - lots of tails. If somebody wants to build a pond and put native plants in, they'll find that many of the plants can be found in our roadside ditches. But you have to be careful not to collect plants from protected places such as parks and private property without first getting permission. This actually leaves you more available than you'd think, because there are so many ditches! I'd suggest that you go out into the country to the nearest waterway to you that you've seen dragonflies at and collect there. That way the plants you collect will already be adapted to your area and climate and they may even have dragonfly eggs and/or nymph on them. Mine did! And believe me, these plants are very prolific.

One of the things I love about my pond is that I don't have to baby the plants. Let them grow, and they get rampant, and I pull some of them out and give them to the next person who's building a pond. This year my pond has helped stock three other ponds! That's a lot better for our planet Earth than putting in pesticides and fertilizers and having to baby the plants. I wasn't' familiar with any of these plants before putting our pond in, except maybe the cattails. So the learning is part of the fun. You can also go to a pond nursery where the nurseryman should know which plants are natives and which aren't.

The dragonflies and damselflies live much longer as nymph than they do as adults and I don't discount studying them, but it's hard to get enamored about something underwater that you don't see very often. With the damselflies you'd probably have to use a magnifying glass! I think it's worth doing, but it's not going to catch on much.

Dragonflying, however, I'm thinking, is going to really catch on. I think we're going to soon find as many people as are out watching the butterflies doing dragonfly watching. Because the dragonflies are gorgeous and interesting too! Believe me!


Kathy Biggs' dragonfly website:

Common Dragonflies of California

by Kathy Biggs

Azalea Creek Publishing

308 Bloomfield Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472

$9.95 plus shipping; (CA tax )