The ancient insects we call dragonflies may be the most misunderstood insects of all. Some cultures revile them, while others revere them. Many myths have emerged over the centuries, and some still get handed down from generation to generation. Here are 5 myths about dragonflies, with facts to set the record straight.
1. Dragonflies live just one day.
Dragonflies actually live for months or even years, if you count the entire life cycle from egg to adult. In some species, the aquatic nymphs molt up to 15 times, a growth process that takes several years to complete. People who think dragonflies live just one day are probably thinking only of the adult dragonfly stage. It is true that an adult dragonfly's main objective is to mate before dying, and so they don't need to live very long. But most adult dragonflies will live for several months at least, while eating, patrolling, and mating. Dragonflies don't usually die of old age, either – they tend to wind up in the bellies of larger predators, like birds.
2. Dragonflies sting.
Nope, not even close to true. Dragonflies may look threatening to the entomophobes among us, but there isn't a dragonfly known to man that has a sting apparatus. Male dragonflies do bear claspers for holding the female during mating, and these could perhaps be mistaken for a stinger by an uninformed observer. Also, in some female dragonflies – the darners and petaltails, specifically – the ovipositor is designed to slice open plant stems. These dragonflies, as well as all of the smaller and less intimidating damseflies, insert their eggs into plant material, and are thus equipped to incise plant tissue. Now, on very rare occasions, a dragonfly has mistaken someone's leg for a plant, and attempted to slice it open and deposit an egg. Yes, that hurts. But that doesn't mean the dragonfly can sting. There are no venom sacs to administer toxins into your body, and the insect's intent is not to harm you. Only insects in the order Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps) can sting.
3. Dragonflies can sew your mouth (or ears, or eyes) shut.
Um, no, although it is kind of fun to tell little kids they can. People perpetuating this myth refer to dragonflies as "Devil's darning needles," and usually offer it as a caveat to children who are misbehaving. I can distinctly remember ducking my head underwater when a dragonfly flew near our swimming pool, and holding my breath until I thought it must have given up and flown off. Thanks, Mom. If there was any logical origin of this not-so-urban legend, it probably lies in the same morphological features that makes people think dragonflies can sting. Just because an insect has a long, pointy abdomen does not mean it can employ a running stitch to sew up your mouth.
4. Dragonflies harass horses.
The horses might feel as if they are being harassed when dragonflies persistently fly around them, but the dragonflies have no particular interest in the horses. Dragonflies are predaceous, feeding on other, smaller insects, including the flies that tend to hang around horses and cattle. In all likelihood, a dragonfly that seems to be fixated on a horse is simply improving its odds of catching a meal. People sometimes call dragonflies "horse stingers," but as we've already established, dragonflies don't sting at all.
5. Dragonflies are evil.
For centuries, people have eyed dragonflies with suspicion, and imbued them with evil intent. Swedish folk legends accused dragonflies of poking out people's eyes, and referred to them as "blind stingers" for this reason. From Germany to England, people associate dragonflies with the devil, giving them nicknames like "water witch," "hobgoblin fly," "devil's horse," and even "snake killer." I find that one particularly interesting, since snakes themselves are often thought to be in cahoots with Satan. But truth be told, dragonflies are far from evil. They are, in fact, quite beneficent, if we consider how many mosquitoes they consume, both as nymphs (when they eat mosquito larvae) and adults (when they catch and eat them in flight). If we're going to call the Odonates by any nickname, "mosquito hawk" is the one I'd prefer to use.
- Odonata: Dragonflies and Damselflies, University of California Museum of Paleontology. Accessed December 20, 2012.
- Do Dragonflies Bite or Sting?, Northwest Dragonflier blog, Jim Johnson. Accessed December 20, 2012.
- Here There Be Dragonflies, June Tveekrem, NASA. Accessed December 20, 2012.
- Odonata - Damselflies, Dragonflies, Anisoptera, Zygoptera, Dragonflies and Damselflies, Discover Life. Accessed December 20, 2012.
- Dragonflies and Damselflies | Iowa Insect Information Notes, Iowa State Univerity Department of Entomology. Accessed December 20, 2012.
- Animal Totems: The Power and Prophecy of Your Animal Guides, by Millie Gemondo and Trish MacGregor