A delicate bluet damselfly with gossamer wings drifts and perches among yellow coneflowers and purple blazing star. A spotted-wing skimmer hitches a ride on a kayak gliding across a lake, keeping a paddler company. Then come the supercharged dragonflies — sturdy, strong darners — that buzz with authority across backyards and ball fields, hovering like helicopters, diving like jet fighters on the hunt for mosquitoes, midges and more.¶ Fans of dragonflies and the more delicate damselflies (which together comprise the group called odonata) are spreading the word about these often overlooked and underappreciated insects. Programs and dragonfly field studies have been popping up across the state all summer.¶ “They are the best fliers, bar none, on the planet,” said Ron Lawrenz, director of the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center in Marine on St. Croix and president of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society. “We want to show people how amazing they are.”
Lawrenz and other volunteers with biology and education backgrounds or simply a passion for dragonflies have been studying and tracking Minnesota’s population for the past 10 years.
While the lacy-winged insects are often depicted on clothing and in décor with their emerald, sapphire and amber colors, they haven’t garnered anywhere near the scientific popularity or attention of butterflies. Minnesota dragonflies in particular were among the least-studied in the nation, said Kurt Mead, naturalist at Tettegouche State Park in Silver Bay, Minn., and author of “Dragonflies of the North Woods.”
That began to change in 2006 when he received a seven-year grant to help train volunteers for research, equipping them with large nets, identification guides and magnifying lenses. The project’s momentum morphed into the nonprofit Minnesota Dragonfly Society to keep research moving forward.
Angela Isackson, invasive species coordinator with the Three Rivers Park District, eagerly studied birds and plants and didn’t pay much attention to dragonflies until she attended her first workshop led by Mead about five years ago.
“People get over-the-top excited,” she recalled. “Once I started swinging the net, I understood. It’s addictive, and it makes you feel like a kid again.”
Try a dragonfly treasure hunt
For many, capturing a dragonfly can be the ultimate treasure hunt — a playfully competitive search for a speedy golden snitch with names like baskettails, clubtails, spiketails, bog haunters, shadowdragons, amberwings and cruisers.
A docile damselfly flitting among wildflowers might be an easy prey, Isackson said, but “if you’re trying to get something like a green darner or black saddlebag, you’re going to be running.”
Volunteers from kids to retirees grab a net at events such as BioBlitzes and survey weekends. They study captured dragonflies up close, take photos, release them into the wild and add the day’s findings to Odonata Central national database (www.odonatacentral.org). If the species is spotted in an area for the first time, it may be kept and added to the University of Minnesota’s permanent collection.
“There are close to 140 species in Minnesota,” Isackson said, helped by its convergence of habitats — prairie, woods and boreal forest. “That just blew my mind.”
Watch for fall migration
Many facts about dragonflies surprise people, Lawrenz said. For starters, they’re among the planet’s oldest insects with fossils from 250 million years ago showing their ancestors had a wingspread of 30 inches and a body stretching to 18 inches.
Even though modern dragonflies are tiny by comparison, they can be mighty. A few of them, such as meadowhawks and black saddlebags, gather in the fall like birds and migrate thousands of miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s the longest migration of any insect,” Lawrenz said. “Hopefully we’re quickly catching up [with research], but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Birders, who are already disciplined as keen observers and photographers, are a natural at helping track the dragonflies. There’s even a dragonfly life list for people to track their sightings. A Minnesota Dragonfly Society Facebook page with more than 450 followers also posts dragonfly sightings from around the state.
Beginners are always welcome to join, and attending events such as the upcoming 10th annual Minnesota Dragonfly Gathering Aug. 7-9 at Tettegouche State Park, offers a good introduction to the insects as well as hands-on fieldwork with boreal species over the weekend, Mead said.
If you do see dragonflies and damselflies buzz by docks, boats, gardens and playgrounds, Mead said, it’s definitely something to celebrate. The insects spend most of their life span as nymphs in the water, so they can only thrive in places where lake and river quality is good.
“They’re environmental indicators,” he said. “Seeing an abundance of and a broad diversity of dragonflies is a sign of health.”
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick is the author of “Day Trips from the Twin Cities” and just released a new edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”