The dragonfly – friend or foe?

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Candidasa lagoon, Bali

In our house, ‘just back from holiday’ goes hand in hand with ‘time to download all the photos off the camera’. As usual, there are hundreds!  Looking through them on the laptop around half of them are family shots, with a further tiny smattering of general shots of people and places around the Balinese town of Candidasa, where we were staying. The rest are shots of the stunning lily-filled lagoon our villa looked out on, and the various wildlife found in and around the lagoon.  Mainly egrets, lilies, and dragonflies.  Lots and lots of dragonflies!  But then that is hardly surprising I guess, as their main food source is mosquitoes and their larvae need water to live in.  Location, location, location, as the old adage goes!

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Asian Groundling dragonfly

We were sat by the swimming pool one afternoon, and this beautiful specimen was crying out to be photographed. The colours were just stunning.  Not being a dragonfly expert I tried to identify him using the miracle that is google.  With a little bit of searching and cross-referencing, my best guess is that he is an Asian Groundling.  Although I have discovered that the same dragonfly can have many different names, depending on where in the world they are seen.  So this one might also be called a Ditch Jewel, an Asian Amberwing, an Orange Skimmer, or a Common Amberwing.

Dragonflies are not only given different names, but are also given different cultural symbolism in different parts of the world. In Japan, for instance, they are held in high regard.  Perhaps unsurprising as Japan was once called Akitsushima, or ‘dragonfly island‘. Dragonflies are revered as symbols of power, courage and agility in Japan and are a popular subject of traditional haiku poems. In neighbouring China, they are used as a good luck charm, symbolising prosperity and harmony. Some Native American cultures hold the dragonfly as a symbol of renewal after hardship; others belief they are the souls of the dead, bringing their blessing.

By contrast, in many European countries, dragonflies have traditionally been more darkly symbolic.  The colloquial names vary, but their translations are revealing. With names like ‘devils’ needle’, ‘eye poker’, ‘horse stinger’ and ‘snake’s servant’, people in countries as widely spread as Wales, Denmark and Portugal were clearly rather wary of the dragonfly in years gone by.

Folklore from different countries associates them a whole host of malevolent characters including the devil, snakes, witches, and hobgoblins.  In Sweden, legend has it that trolls used dragonflies to sew their clothes and also poke out the eyes of their enemies. American folklore speaks of dragonflies stitching closed the mouths, eyes and ears of lying children. It’s certainly one way to make a child behave, scaring them silly about dragonflies sneaking in to sew their mouths shut whilst they sleep. I’m so pleased I wasn’t a child of the traditional folklore storytelling age. I can only imagine the nightmares!

For such a small, fragile looking, beautiful creature, I find it fascinating that they have such negative connotations in so many countries. And interesting that Asian countries generally they have a much better press. But then perhaps the people there caught on to the fact that they were mosquito munchers…and honestly, who could not love a creature that keeps the mosquito population down?! They were definitely very welcome by us for exactly that reason!

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