The snowdrops are just past their best, daffodils are springing into life, and even our first tulip has already burst into flower. I can hear a green woodpecker’s ‘yaffle’ from the woods along Ox Field Beck and our tawnies are calling to each other up the Scrog. It seems like Spring is just around the corner.
It’s the 1st of March and I’ve just cleaned out my pond after the winter. It needed a strong arm to lift out the enormous water plants which I’ve allowed to get far too big. My trusty fishing net scooped up the old leaves that have languished in the bottom since Autumn and I made sure everything was laid out on the lawn to allow the tiny creatures to return to the water before I return some of the plants and compost the remainder.
I sat on the lawn and watched as the plants came alive. All kinds of water beetles and other insects emerged, shook themselves free of the detritus, and headed uncertainly back to the pond. A big frog emerged from somewhere and took a massive leap into the water. I counted three dragonfly nymphs making their way over the leaves and I gave them a helping hand to reach home. These are the larvae of eggs, probably laid within the last couple of years by visiting dragonflies. The nymphs are predators and will live in the pond, preying on unsuspecting aquatic invertebrates until they decide it’s time to enter the big wide world above.
On what will probably be a warm spring morning, a nymph will climb out of the water and shimmy up a reed until it is well clear of the surface.
Then, when it’s ready, the nymph will break out of the exuvia that has been its underwater skin, begin to breathe air and pump its veins full of liquid until it is twice the size of the shell it has just left behind. The four lumps on its back will grow into wings. This newly transformed adult insect will bask in the sunshine until its exoskeleton is dry enough to allow it to fly away and enjoy its short life as an adult dragonfly. The exuvia will remain, clinging to the reed, evidence of a life left behind.
Those first few hours of the adult dragonfly’s life are critical. Their bodies are soft and, until they properly dry and harden off, they are susceptible to predation. Some will be taken by birds and other predators before they are fit to fly away.
This short drama in a dragonfly’s life is fascinating and could easily prompt a fairy tale. An ugly brown creature climbs up from the deep and out of its skin bursts a new being, an extraordinary organism with two big eyes that gradually morphs into a beautiful, delicate, but voracious predator. I wonder if the brothers Grimm were sitting next to their pond when they had the idea for ‘The Frog Prince’?
These images are of a four-spotted chaser nymph and adult, one of thirty six dragonfly species in the UK and common here in Kirkheaton in the summer. Dragonflies can fly forwards, backwards and sideways, hover and complete hairpin turns at ridiculous speeds. They have 360 degree vision and 80% of their brain is devoted to sight. Great for evading predators and great for spotting prey.
Dragonflies have been around in some form for millions of years – and I’ve got at least three nymphs in my pond waiting to climb out and join them.