Nature Watch: June 2018

May 29 2018

June is a wonderful month if you like insects.

Butterflies are probably the most beloved, though I did once meet somebody who had a butterfly phobia  – she was making a sterling effort to come on a guided walk round a nature reserve! But in June, with the pond twinkling in the high noon of midsummer, I like to watch in the hope of seeing a damselfly or dragonfly larva struggling up into the light.

The large red damselfly is one of the first to emerge and will be on the wing in June. They are typical of their kind; most dragonflies and damselflies have the same life cycle. They will have only a brief spell in the sun – in about 6 weeks their adult lives will be over – but they may have spent up to two years maturing down in the silty depths of the pond (the larger dragonflies can take even longer). The underwater juvenile phase, the nymph, is not anywhere near as pretty as that name suggests. With a wide body, a large head and jaws and an upturned tail of three fan-like parts it looks something like a small but super-charged scorpion. This cumbersome water-dragon stalks about on the pond bed capturing small insect larvae and crustaceans. 

Then, on a fine day in May or June, it suddenly takes a fancy to climb. Up it goes, clinging to a green stalk, wrestling itself free from the surface film and feeling the dry touch of air for the first time (unless it has been unlucky enough to have been captured and briefly admired by us on a previous occasion). It stops; its tough juvenile exoskeleton must now perform its last duty and hold on tight to the stem. Inside the exoskeleton the adult is fully formed and, in a sudden and seemingly violent rite of passage, the old exoskeleton cracks open and the adult damselfly emerges into the wide summer air.  

This must surely be the most incredible metamorphosis in the insect world. In about an hour, the damselfly changes from a dull, plodding creature of the dark pond- world to become a graceful and bold flying raptor. Its full colour of cherry red will not develop for another day or so but it can fly almost immediately, it just has to pump up its crumpled wings with blood and let them dry out. And off it goes! It soars, immediately grappling with and soon commanding its new element. I love to watch and imagine what that must feel like, to break free from the heavy world of water and then within the hour effortlessly to soar into the sunshine. This miniature ballerina-falcon will now feed on adult midges and mosquitoes, plucking them from the air as easily as we pluck a flower from the garden, so it is a welcome sight as we sip a glass of wine outside on a warm evening and enjoy the midsummer.