14 August 2013
As we swelter in the heat and humidity of a Beijing August, my wife and I have noticed over the last week or so a singular natural phenomenon: the appearance of swarms of dragonflies. They are particularly thick around my piece of canal, which I suppose is not surprising since their larvae are aquatic. Neither my wife nor I have ever seen dragonfly swarms in Europe, so we are fascinated by this phenomenon. I tried taking photos with my iPhone but it was a miserable failure. My wife looked at the photos and said, “Sorry, where are the dragonflies?” The swarms are invisible. So I’ve borrowed a few photos taken by people who clearly knew how to go about it (even then, in the first one you really have to look hard to see the dragonflies).
I like dragonflies. They look so awkwardly designed, the kind of thing a kid would put together with a meccano set (does anyone under the age of 50 know what that is?): a bumbling insect, with a big head attached to a thin, thin body, the whole pushed around by those funny double wings. But let me tell you, they are survivors! They’ve been around for 300 million years or so. And the design must be pretty good, because it hasn’t changed much over those millions of years. Look at these fossil dragonflies.
With a bit of luck, they will still be around when we’ve disappeared off the face of the earth.
I suppose the number of species is also a good indicator of success, and here dragonflies also do pretty well: some 6,000 different species, from every continent (except the Antarctic, of course). The species we are seeing here don’t look anything special, but take a look at these photos. There are some really lovely specimens.
I can’t resist throwing in some close-ups
Look at those eyes!
My English grandfather, who was a scientist and an expert on high-powered microscopes, took beautiful black and white photographs of insects. I found them by chance in a shoe box in my grandmother’s house. I asked to have them. I took them to school. Somewhere along the line, I lost them – all those changes of addresses …
I’m glad to report that a Serious English Poet (whose poems were included in the magisterial Oxford Book of English Verse, no less) also liked dragonflies. Walter Savage Landor wrote this poem some time in the late 1700’s when a dragonfly landed on the page of his book:
Life (priest and poet say) is but a dream;
I wish no happier one than to be laid
Beneath a cool syringa’s scented shade,
Or wavy willow, by the running stream,
Brimful of moral, where the dragon-fly,
Wanders as careless and content as I.
Thanks for this fancy, insect king,
Of purple crest and filmy wing,
Who with indifference givest up
The water-lily’s golden cup,
To come again and overlook
What I am writing in my book.
Believe me, most who read the line
Will read with hornier eyes than thine;
And yet their souls shall live for ever,
And thine drop dead into the river!
God pardon them, O insect king,
Who fancy so unjust a thing!
Well, I can’t argue with the Poet’s point. Either all living things have souls or none do.
There’s one thing, though, in all this that worries me. It is said that dragonfly swarms prefigure earthquakes. In fact, there is a Chinese film, Aftershock, which starts in late July 1967 with swarms of dragonflies and segues into the destruction of the city of Tangshan. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake. A quarter of a million deaths. So I keep looking around me nervously, waiting for things to start shaking.
Swarm of dragonflies-1: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcmaster/3534906552/sizes/l/in/photostream/
Dragonfly fossil-1: http://www.bernstein.naturkundemuseum-bw.de/odonata/isophleb.htm
Dragonfly fossil-2: http://www.bernstein.naturkundemuseum-bw.de/odonata/cymato.jpg
Beautiful dragonfly-1: http://www.dragonfly-site.com/graphics/pictures-17.jpg
Beautiful dragonfly-2: http://www.dragonfly-site.com/graphics/pictures-18.jpg
Beautiful dragonfly-3: http://rateeveryanimal.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Dragonfly-pink.jpg
Dragonfly closeup-1: http://jcgator1.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/dragonfly-stare.jpg