What Do Dragonflies Eat?
Dragonfly Eating an Unlucky Bug
We watch dragonflies flying around the pond and they are beautiful. But what DO dragonflies eat? A dragonfly is an agile predator. Adult dragonflies and dragonfly nymphs (the stage of the dragonfly that lives in the water) are excellent hunters and mainly eat other insects.Have you ever heard of a dragonfly going on a diet? No? We haven’t either, because these little critters are carnivorous in their minds, bodies and soul. A fun fact here - A dragonfly can eat food equal to its own weight in about 30 minutes. Which roughly translates into a you trying to eat as much as 100 lb…let alone in half an hour. We don’t eat that amount of food in a week!
From the time they get out of their eggs as little nymphs, their limbs and mouth yearn for meat and seek out prey underwater. They are extremely fast swimmers and will eat just about anything that moves under the water surface and on. They have a hyper-thrust mechanism to give them the extra speed-boost when they are pursuing a critter that gives the dragonfly nymph a run for its money. For a quick burst of speed, they eject water from their anal opening to act like a jet propulsion system, which makes it a near impossible feat for the nymph dragonfly’s prey to even think of an escape.If you think this is spectacular, wait till you hear this. Occasionally, the nymph will venture out of the water to get a quick snack from the land. It does this with such nonchalance that when seen this way, one would never really consider the dragonfly nymph to be primarily aquatic, and never ‘ever’ an aquatic insect with gills.
As Nymphs, the dragonflies eat mosquito larvae, other aquatic insects and worms, and for a little variety even small aquatic vertebrates like tadpoles and small fish.
Dragonfly Munching on a Cricket
Once they are ready to leave their aquatic homes, they crawl above the water surface, molt to shed their skin one last time before they take to the skies as elegant dragonflies. Do they change what they eat once they’re airborne? Hardly!
Adult Dragonflies are born rulers of their domain and they prove it to just about every insect that thinks it can pull a fast one on this killing machine. The adult dragonfly uses the basket formed by its legs to catch insects while flying. The adult dragonfly likes to eat gnats, mayflies, flies, mosquitoes and other small flying insects. They sometimes eat butterflies, moths and bees too.
From bees to mosquitoes, dragonflies make a meal out of what they please and can hunt down insects on a whim, callously plucking them out of thin air after out-flying outmaneuvering and them in the chase that does not normally last very long.
To give you a little insight, the dragonfly that is many times the size of a mosquito or a housefly needs to flap its wings a mere 30 times a minute when compared to a mosquito’s 600 times a minute and the housefly’s 1000 flaps a minute requirement to keep them flying and in peak maneuverability. Such is the power that the dragonfly is equipped with and given its low-energy speed capability, very, very few insects can escape its basket shaped grabbing limbs that it uses to clutch on to its prey before crushing the critter into a gooey mass, with its powerful mandibles and swallowing it.
Adult dragonflies eat just about anything that is edible and can be caught. They are a treasure for humanity because they keep mosquito populations under strict control by feasting on them when they are in abundance. Similarly, they also feed on ants, termites, butterflies, gnats, bees and other insects and tend to hunt in groups when large colonies of ants or termites are spotted.
They are considered a pest by apiaries because they can polish off a good chunk of the bee population before one can realize the threat looming large.
Writing about what dragonflies eat makes one wonder what would be the case if some of the older dragonfly species that have been found as fossils existed today. These fossil species belonging to the Meganeura genus were carnivorous insects with wings spreading to spans in the range of two and a half feet and made their food out of other insects and even small amphibians. If they were still alive today, we’d have to constantly watch our small pets to be sure they didn’t end up a dragonfly’s lunch!
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Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons, among others. Ken's debut novel is "The Grace of Kings" (Saga, 2015), the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series. Saga is also publishing a collection of his short stories, "The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories" (Saga, 2016), excerpted here. Liu contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Animals come in all different sizes, but the laws of physics mean that you can't just arbitrarily scale up a dragonfly to the size of an elephant and expect the body plan to result in a functioning creature.
For one thing, mass increases much faster than other qualities like strength or surface area as you scale up a body, and so the legs and wings of an elephant-size dragonfly would have to be proportionately much larger to support the extra weight — and it's doubtful muscle power could be sufficient to propel such a creature into flight.
Moreover, insects are generally small because they rely on diffusion to distribute oxygen to interior cells instead of the active oxygen-pumping systems found in animals like mammals. This imposes an upper limit on just how big an insect can get. It's true that there were gigantic dragonflies — still not the size of elephants, however — during the Carboniferous period (as well as housecat-size cockroaches and other horrors), but the oxygen level in the atmosphere at the time was much higher, and that likely played a role in making such bodies viable.
Let's pause for a moment and give thanks for the fact that we don't have to live in a world of pet-size cockroaches and meter-long scorpions.
All of this presents an analogy for fiction. It's tempting to think of novels (the elephants) as scaled-up short stories, or short stories (the dragonflies) as miniaturized novels. But having written both 100-word drabbles as well as 200,000-word epic fantasies, I can assure you that's not the case.
Because a short story is a different reading experience than a novel, the ways in which short story writers craft their words can't be simply scaled up for use in writing novels.
A short story is very much like a dragonfly (or insects in general):
- It hovers, darts, skims along the surface of consciousness.
- It relies on quickness and stealth to seize the emotional payload.
- It can be beheld as a whole in the mind and admired in its entirety.
- It breathes by diffusing its thematic metaphor throughout every word.
- It can get away with ostentatious experimentation in body plan — and now we're comparing stories to insects in general — so that nontraditional narrative techniques can be used without risk of exhausting the reader.
A novel, on the other hand, is very much like an elephant:
- It demands sustained attention from the reader.
- It requires a fully fleshed out world that must be slowly experienced and grasped in pieces much as the fable of the elephant and observers without sight.
- Because it cannot be understood all at once, it requires a clear structure to guide the reader through interlocking plot lines.
- It breathes and lives by regular rhythms, by well-understood beats, and is generally resistant to "too much" experimentation — at least in most genres — since immersion is a prized attribute for many readers, and immersion is generally achieved by sticking to shared reading conventions.
This isn't to say one is harder to write or more fun to read than the other, but to acknowledge that the short story writer must solve different problems subject to different constraints from novelists.
When I write short stories, I generally don't outline at all. I can proceed by instinct and experimentation, feeling my way and sculpting the story piece by piece while the shape of the whole is held in my head. The single plot line tends to be sufficiently simple that it does not require a great deal of note-taking, and the themes can be woven into the narrative during drafting. And if the draft turns out to be unsatisfactory, there's generally not enough invested that I cannot bear to throw it away and start from scratch.
But when I learned to write novels, the experience was very different. I found an outline (at least a rough one) necessary because it was the only way to be sure multiple plot lines functioned together. The world of an epic fantasy novel consisted of so many details — characters, habits, cultural touchstones, fauna and flora, magical systems, religious practices, holidays, weapons, military tactics, quirks in the economy — that I had to take detailed notes and write explanatory essays to myself to keep it all straight.
Indeed, I ended up creating a mini-wiki for my world just so that I could inhabit it and move around effectively.
It is certainly possible to try to write a novel as an extended short story and vice versa, but I suspect the results would not read as well. The rules of narrative logic and interpretive conventions are almost as powerful as the laws of physics, and works that aren't cognizant of them and use them to the benefit of the story may well suffer as a result.
Yet, it is fascinating to think about how we can, as both writers and readers, challenge the conventions around these forms and infuse the atmosphere, as it were, with more oxygen so that we facilitate the creation of experimental forms that are as magical as elephant-size dragonflies that soar into flight.
For more, read "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species," an excerpt from Liu's latest collection of stories, his essay on silkpunk technology, and an excerpt from his novel "The Grace of Kings."
Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Space.com.