In the unusual heat of this sunny springtime, my pond is still apart from the tiny white moths that hover over its surface. But for the last few days, unbeknown to me, dragonfly nymphs have been hanging around near the margins as they practice breathing air in preparation for their transformation into dragonflies; a transformation that is carefully timed and synchronised according to the time of year and the weather.
Since hatching from their egg state, they have been swimming around at the bottom of my pond feasting on invertebrates and baby newts for between eighteen months and two years. Despite my frequent late evening spot lighting, I have only ever seen one nymph amidst the weed. However, by late mornings during the last week, I have noticed at least ten empty exoskeletons that cling lifelessly to the stems of my water irises. I have obviously missed the 3-hour transformations as they have changed from a nymph into a dragonfly.
For anyone who has witnessed this, it is a slightly uncomfortable yet compelling process to behold, as they slowly emerge head-first out of their nymph body, pushing out and extending their long wings that hang out to dry beneath them. When their wings have expanded with haemolymph (insect blood) and their globular compound eyes furnished with thousands of lenses, they fly away leaving their empty, ghostlike, nymph carcasses clinging to the vegetation.
Two nights ago, I was sitting in my garden listening to the soft midnight chimes from the village church. As I shone my torch onto the pond, I noticed a Southern Hawker clinging to her empty case on a stem of my purple loosestrife. She had just emerged from her shell and was preparing to live her last six to eight weeks in the air. Most dragonfly transformations happen very early in the morning except for the hawkers who wait until the cover of darkness, protecting them from the birds who lie in wait.
Mesmerised by this midnight encounter, I watched as she stretched out her fine gossamer wings. In time, these wings will reach speeds of 30 miles an hour and allow her to enjoy fast, multidirectional flight. Dragonflies were one of the first type of insects to appear and have existed for 30 million years, predating the dinosaurs. Fossils have revealed giant species with 60cm wingspans; just imagine how magnificent they would have been.
Feeling immensely privileged to witness the emergence of our fastest flying insect. I noted the tiny transformations that took place along her body, until, alas, sleep got the better of me and I left her in peace to complete her journey into adulthood. Sat under the brightest of night skies, this had felt a very precious intimate moment with nature.