Amazing dragonflies

Fascinated by dragonflies? Mark your calendars now for Dragonfly Snag & Spy on August 12 from 1-4 p.m. This event is your opportunity to get up close with dragonflies.

Whether their stained glass wings are dancing above the ripples on the water or weaving between tall flowers and grasses in the prairie, dragonflies are an amazing addition Minnesota’s long summer days. Adult dragonflies have some of the most powerful flight muscles among insects. In fact, the structure of their wings inspired the engineers that designed early helicopters. Dragonflies have been around since before dinosaurs roamed the Earth and paleontologists have even found fossils of giant dragonflies with a two-foot wing span! Despite having been around for millions of years, scientists are still learning more about these fascinating creatures.

In Minnesota there are about 149 species of dragonflies, and their close relative the damsel fly, which belong to an insect order called Odonata. In Latin, Odonata means ‘toothed ones’ and it’s easy to see why they chose that name. Dragonflies and damselflies are carnivores and voracious predators that use mouthparts akin to medieval torture devices to hold and eat their prey. The vice-like lips are used to clamp and secure captured prey while a series of incurved hooks that make up the jaws move side to side to chew and devour the food.

The impressive qualities of dragonflies don’t stop at their wings and mouth. Unlike most insects they can actually turn their head, allowing a 360 degree view, which improves their ability to hide from predators and find prey. Their prominent compound eyes contain 30,000 lenses providing great eyesight that is essential as they are sight-based creatures that frequently hunt while on the move. Although their vision is excellent, their sense of smell is rudimentary and they are unable to hear or vocalize. As with all insects, dragonflies also have two antennae. Located under the eyes in the center of their face, these very small, wispy antennae measure wind direction and speed during flight, and assist with navigation.

A good sense of direction is important because some dragonflies, such as certain populations of the Common Green Darner and the Variegated Meadowhawk, migrate much like Monarch butterflies. Adults fly from southern states in late spring or early summer to northern states like Minnesota where they will breed and die. Then their offspring make the trip back south in the fall. Similar to Monarchs, the offspring are not taught to migrate, they just seem to know where to go. Though experts know that dragonflies follow weather patterns, there is still much that is unknown about their migration.

Dragonflies actually spend more of their life as juveniles than adults. Their lifecycle includes three developmental stages: egg, larva (nymph) and adult. Eggs are laid in the water where the aquatic larva hatch and then ravenously eat, grow and shed for an average of one to three years! Here in Minnesota the nymphs of some species even overwinter under the ice. Since dragonfly larva depend on water habitats it is important to maintain clean water resources for them.

Lake, pond, river, stream and wetland ecosystems all host dragonfly larva. Experts believe dragonflies are an indicator species, which means their health and population status can be used as a proxy to diagnose the health of an ecosystem. By studying dragonfly larva we can gain information about the water quality of their habitats. If water conditions become poor, the result can be harmful not only to dragonflies and other animals, but humans as well. There are over 15 million people living in the upper half of the Mississippi River basin (Minnesota through Illinois) who depend on the Mississippi River for drinking water. Protecting and taking care of dragonfly habitats by keeping pollution out of our waters is not only beneficial for these creatures, but humans as well.

If you’re interested in other things with wings, then join us for Early Birding Saturday, August 5 from 9-10:30 a.m. Don’t miss an afternoon full of dragonfly activities, art and games on August 12 from 1-4 p.m. during our Dragonfly Snag & Spy event. Or visit the nature center to check out an insect-themed nature backpack and explore the park on your own. Find us at our Nature Exploration Station by the playground throughout the week!

It’s not too late to sign kids up for summer day camps in August such as Avian Adventures and Slither & Slime. Camps run each week Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-4 p.m. in two different themed sessions (8 a.m.-noon and noon-4 p.m.). Scholarships available. Register online or call 612-370-4844.

For info or to register for programs visit and like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at our park!

Written by Kelley Ekstrom and Emily Bowers, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalists at North Mississippi Regional Park