The humble dragonfly has inspired humans for generations. But a number of cultures have taken this far beyond simply admiring the insects for their outward beauty. Instead, they have attached significant meanings to the fascinating creatures – and, by extension, to the people who spot them. So, if you often notice dragonflies, then the universe may be trying to send you an important message. Let’s find out more.
Dragonflies are ancient creatures, and it’s believed that they hail back to a time before the dinosaurs ruled the world. Yes, apparently they first took to the skies a whopping 300 million years ago. Back then, dragonflies were among the first insects that developed the ability to fly. And unlike our dainty dragonflies of today, some of their ancient counterparts are believed to have measured up at around two feet from wing to wing.
Today, there are over 5,000 kinds of dragonflies on our planet, and these are only the ones that we know about. The insects are closely related to the damselfly, with both species heralding from the Odonata group of insects. This term translates as “toothed one” in Greek – apparently referring to the carnivorous species’ teeth.
But there’s no need to be scared of man-biting dragonflies just yet. You see, it’s since been established that the creatures don’t actually have teeth. Instead, they have powerful serrated mandibles, and these formidable choppers allow them to crush insects with ease and feed on their prey. And although dragonflies may look ethereal, they’re actually ferocious predators with insatiable appetites. So woe betide any unlucky insects that crosses their path.
Dragonflies tend to be bigger than their damselfly cousins, and their wings typically stick out to the sides rather than resting above their bodies. And as adults, dragonflies are certainly distinctive creatures: their lithe frames, vibrant coloring and see-through wings often cause a stir whenever they’re spotted. The insects also sport huge, multifaceted eyes.
Dragonflies start life as eggs, but after they hatch they enter a larval stage, during which they are referred to as nymphs. At this point in their lifecycles, the creatures live in rivers and streams and can remain there for up to four years – until they are ready to emerge as adults. And even at this early stage, dragonfly lymphs are intimidating predators, feasting on anything from insect larvae to tadpoles; they’ve even been known to take on a fish or two!
When a dragonfly’s larval stage comes to an end, then, the nymph wriggles out onto dry land and waits for its exoskeleton to break open. And it’s at this point that the insect’s distinctive abdomen and dual set of wings emerge. Yet although the dragonfly’s body will be soft at first, their exposed body parts strengthen over the coming hours and days. Until this crucial process is complete, though, the creature is at risk of being attacked by other animals.
Yes, sadly, carnivores take advantage of this vulnerability, and many soft-bodied dragonflies are eaten by birds and other predators before their bodies have had time to harden. These types of threats mean that life for young dragonflies is fraught with danger, and death is commonplace. And even those who survive the first few days of their adult lives will only live for up a year. Indeed, for some species, life on the wing lasts for just a precious few weeks.
But as master predators, dragonflies make every second of their adult existences count. And they are extraordinarily good fliers; they can move in any direction and are even capable of hanging in the air like helicopters! The insects can control each of their wings individually, too, enabling them to make daredevil turns in the blink of an eye.
And this agility allows dragonflies to perform amazing feats of aerial acrobatics. The creatures nab their prey using only their feet, for instance, and they can also couple while flying. Dragonflies are also incredibly fast. They can travel forwards at 100 body lengths per second, which translates to as much as 30 miles per hour. With this incredible flying power, it’s hardly surprising that some species choose to migrate in search of vital resources.
In fact, it is a type of dragonfly that holds the title for the insect with the longest migration. This long-haul expert is called the globe skimmer, and they make impressive 11,000-mile return journeys across the Indian Ocean – traveling between Africa and India. It puts our commutes to shame!
And not only are dragonflies master fliers, but they’re also gifted with impeccable vision, too. As the insects’ protruding eyes dominate their heads, they can see almost all the way around themselves at one time. Furthermore, dragonflies can detect a greater variety of colors than our eyes can process. As a result of this excellent eyesight, the creatures are able to pick up on other insects’ flight patterns – thereby circumventing mid-air accidents.
Perhaps owing to their superior flying abilities and superb eyesight, dragonflies are found in all corners of the Earth. And the only continent that’s devoid of the insects is Antarctica. Yet despite their widespread distribution, populations are in decline across the world. These dwindling numbers are due, in fact, to the loss of the wetland environments that dragonflies rely on for survival. Consequently, in 1997 the International Union for Conservation of Nature established a status survey for the insect as well as a program to help safeguard them.
Crucially, the loss of these enigmatic creatures would undoubtedly be detrimental to the rest of the planet. For one, dragonflies play a vital role in keeping the mosquito population under control. Amazingly, a single one of these insects can devour 30 mosquitoes a day, and they’re capable of ingesting as many as several hundred. But the declining dragonfly population could have another devastating impact, too; the insects have a marked cultural significance across the world.
It seems that dragonflies have captivated our ancestors for thousands of years. After all, an English archaeologist called Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie discovered a dragonfly talisman while exploring the ancient Egyptian settlement of El Lahun. The trinket is believed to have dated from the Middle Kingdom era of Ancient Egypt, which lasted from around 2050 to approximately 1710 BC.
As well as this evidence of Ancient Egypt’s fascination with the creatures, dragonflies have captured imaginations across the rest of the world, too. And in a number of cultures the insects have garnered unique meanings, which are often inspired by their distinctive characteristics and conduct. One prevalent myth, for instance, suggests that dragonflies earned their moniker because they used to be dragons.
And in many parts of the world, dragonflies represent change. This also encompasses an altered perspective or a personal epiphany. These developments may come from growing emotionally or mentally, or from looking at life in a new way. As dragonflies spend their youth living on the surface of water, some believe that the creatures encourage us to delve deeper into different parts of our lives.
Many people also take inspiration from the dragonfly’s agile movements, and the insect’s ability to fly in any direction. Some consider this quality to be a sign of their gracefulness and strength. And because dragonflies acquire these skills in their adult lives, it’s thought that these traits are only earned with time.
The dragonfly is also seen as a symbol of power and elegance. That’s because the insect moves its wings a mere 30 times each minute. To put this into perspective, a housefly moves its wings up to 1,000 times each minute – creating a much less graceful result. With this in mind, then, dragonflies have been compared to ballerinas as they are perceived to match the dancers in both their vigor and grace.
Furthermore, some admirers of dragonflies see them as the personification of carpe diem, meaning seize the day. You see, even though the insects are only adults for the smallest section of their lives, they make the most of this period and achieve all that they can. So some people believe that we should echo this mentality in our own lives and live each day to the fullest.
Yet alongside these universal beliefs regarding the significance of dragonflies, they also have culturally specific meanings, too. For many years the humble insects have inspired a number of Japanese poets, for example. Matsuo Bashō – one of Japan’s most influential haiku masters who was writing during the seventeenth century – penned a line about the “crimson pepper pod” of the “darting dragonfly” for one of his poems.
In fact, dragonflies have been symbolic in Japan for centuries. This is, in part, down to a legend involving the country’s mythical first ruler, Emperor Jinmu. The ancient leader was reportedly bitten by a rogue mosquito, you see, who was trying to steal his imperial blood. However, the bloodsucking insect soon met its demise when a dragonfly came along and ate it.
Owing to this myth, then, Japan become known as the “Dragonfly Islands.” And to this day, the insects still influence Japanese culture and continue to feature regularly in the country’s literature and art. They are synonymous with fall, too, and commonly represent strength, courage and happiness.
And Japan’s premier historic fighting units took inspiration from the insects, too. Yes, the dragonfly was adopted as a symbol for ancient samurai warriors. It’s easy to understand why Japanese soldiers would want to be affiliated with the creatures, as they equated the insect with dexterity, strength and most of all – victory. You see, it’s believed that they thought that dragonflies didn’t fly backwards as they would never admit defeat. Subsequently, this supposed power was interpreted an indication of the creature’s drive and unwavering spirit.
And it’s not just Japanese culture that holds dragonflies in high esteem. The insects are also revered by a number of Native American tribes, for whom they represent speed, happiness and purity. In these cultures, dragonflies are also meant to bring change and are regarded as messengers from the elemental world.
Furthermore, dragonflies have additional significance for many individual Native American tribes. In Navajo culture, for instance, the insects represent clean water. And conversely, Hopi Shamans believe that dragonflies possess supernatural powers. Indeed, the creatures are supposed to bring fecundity and abundance – thereby preventing starvation.
As a measure of dragonflies’ influence in Hopi culture, the creatures feature prominently in the people’s rock art. The insects are a popular motif in other Native American tribes, too, and they often appear in Pueblo necklaces and Zuni pottery. But in other cultures, the mystical powers of dragonflies are sought after in a much more dangerous way.
The remains of dragonflies have been used in the traditional medicines of China and Japan for many years. The insects are also consumed in Indonesia, where they are considered a gourmet dish. But catching the talented fliers is a tricky task, so Indonesians commonly use poles covered in tacky birdlime to snare the creatures. Following this, the captured dragonflies are typically deep fried and gobbled up as a tasty treat.
And other ancient civilizations also put great stock in dragonflies. The Mayans, for example, believed that the creatures were receptors of the spirits of passed loved ones. As well as being linked to death, dragonflies were also equated with life, too, as Mayan folklore linked them to rebirth. The ancient society also thought that dragonflies represented creativity, as outlined in the legend of Ix Chel, a goddess saved by the music of the insects’ wings.
Across the waters in ancient Ireland, in the Celtic tradition dragonflies are believed to be fairies in disguise. According to one Irish myth, so-called “wee ones” used the insects as a kind of winged chariot to get around without being spotted by ordinary beings. And Celtic symbolism also links dragonflies to the mythical dragons that were said to watch over supernatural wells and Ireland’s Sacred Stones.
Dragonflies aren’t prized by every culture, though. Take Europe: in some parts of the continent, the creatures have a somewhat spooky reputation. For instance, one unsavory English nickname for the insect is the “devil’s darning needle.” Some time ago Britons, you see, seemingly thought that dragonflies were sent by Satan to wreak pain and havoc here on Earth.
The ill-feeling towards dragonflies was also spread to Australia, when the British colonized the continent in the late 1700s. Down Under, the insects were predominantly known as “horse stingers.” This nickname came from the belief that dragonflies were bothersome to equines, as horses seemed to be in distress whenever they were around.
But as we’ve gained a greater understanding about dragonflies over the years, it seems unlikely that the creatures were ever responsible for “stinging” horses. In fact, they probably hung around the animals to prey on the parasitic insects that were harming them. So, it’s probable that dragonflies were actually remedying the situation rather than hurting the animals.
That’s not to say that dragonflies can’t be dangerous, though: they’re actually capable of biting animals – and even humans – with their mandibles. But this is a last resort, and the creatures will only chow down if they feel threatened. What’s more, most species aren’t capable of piercing the skin or causing harm. There are, however, a few types of larger dragonflies that could leave behind a nasty bite.
And, sadly, negative connotations of dragonflies still persist in some parts of the world. Like the Brits, the Swedish have traditionally associated the insects with the devil. However, they believed that dragonflies were sent by Satan to measure the souls of his victims. So, according to the Swedes, if you spotted one circling above you then you should expect something bad to happen.
Yet there’s a much more innocent reason why dragonflies could be drawn to you. You see, dragonflies are quite inquisitive, so it’s not uncommon for them to hover around people as if they’re trying to get a closer look. And while this might appear ominous to some, they’re not the kind of creatures to cause harm without due cause; so any perceived circling is usually not sinister.
But the Swedish mistrust of dragonflies doesn’t end there. In fact, the insects have been known as “blind stingers” in the past. This unpleasant nickname comes from the belief that the creatures could pluck out eyeballs or even stick eyelids together. And similar monikers exist in Norway and Germany, while in Portugal dragonflies are known as “eye-snatchers.”
In other parts of the world, dragonflies have been associated with snakes. In Wales, for instance, the insects are regarded as “gwas-y-neidr” – the snake’s servant. Similarly, in some Southern States, dragonflies are known as “snake doctors,” as certain titbits from U.S. folklore suggest that the creatures can sew serpents back together again if they’ve been hurt.
However, it’s suggested that most of these negative viewpoints are based on the dragonfly’s striking appearance, as their visages could have been considered frightening by some people. As a result, before science taught us more about these fascinating creatures, they held a fearsome reputation.
What is clear, though, is that dragonflies have captured our imaginations for generations. And with their striking appearances, awesome aerial skills and cultural significance across the globe, it’s hardly surprising. After all, what other insect can claim to inspire fear, hope, happiness, mistrust and wonder like the dragonfly does?