Abuzz over dragonflies

Trend: Enthusiasts who track these colorful, winged insects say their hobby is about to take flight.

July 31, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Bob and Joanne Solem used to be avid birders, until another animal stole the show.

Now, instead of looking skyward, they train their close-focus binoculars on the ground beneath their feet. Green darners, blue dashers and dusky dancers spring into view. Their lives, on lazy summer days, become an endless stream of amber- wings, spreadwings, pond-hawks and baskettails.

The Solems, who live in Laurel, are part of the latest trend in the nature world: dragonfly-watching.

Once the purview of scientists and specialists, dragonflies - and their near cousins, damselflies - are starting to catch the fancy of the public. With the anticipated release of the first-ever pictorial nationwide guide to dragonflies this summer, some believe the trend will soon become a craze.

In the tiny but growing dragonfly-watching community, there is talk of little else.

"It's almost like Harry Potter for nerds," said Don Jewell of Union Mills, attending a dragonfly class with his wife at the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase.

People are hoping the new book, "Dragonflies Through Binoculars," will have the same effect as the "Butterflies Through Binoculars" series, which set off a flurry of butterfly-watching when it came out seven years ago. In those seven years, the North American Butterfly Association has grown more than tenfold.

"This is the first time that people are beginning to look at butterflies and dragonflies and other insects as wildlife," said Jeffrey Glassberg, editor of "Dragonflies through Binoculars" and president of the Morristown, N.J.-based butterfly association. "There was no way for people to get into it before."

Richard Orr, a Columbia entomologist who is considered the foremost expert on dragonflies and damselflies in the Northeast, isn't surprised that dragonflies are following in the footsteps of birds and butterflies.

"It's nice to have a hobby on hot summer days where you can splash around in the water and justify it," he said.

Orr, who fell in love with dragonflies as a boy, calls them "the apex of evolution" and "the center of the universe." Like birds and butterflies, he said, they come in all the colors of the rainbow. Dragonflies need their iridescent colors, Orr said, to identify each other as friends or foes. Their bulging eyes can see nearly 360 degrees horizontally and vertically, and in some cases 80 percent of their brain is devoted to vision. The insects can see colors in addition to ultraviolet and polarized light.

But Orr is most impressed by their flying. They are predators, the hawks and tigers of the insect world, and have the agility to prove it. Their wings contain specialized bends, blood-filled weights and micro-sensory hairs that can tell which way the wind is blowing.

"More than anything else, they are creatures of movement," Orr said. "They can fly upside-down or backwards. No other vertebrate or invertebrate has that type of flight control."

Orr said many people fall for dragonfly- and damselfly-watching because so little is known about the animals that even amateur researchers can make a difference.

That's what attracted the Solems to the hobby five years ago. Now they conduct dragonfly counts in Howard County in hopes that one day their data will serve some scientific purpose. On hot summer days, the kind that dragonflies like best, the Solems often go out twice, first in the morning and again in the afternoon.

"We figured it was something we could really make a contribution to, simply because there were so few other people involved in it," said Bob Solem, a retired analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Solems have more than 80 dragonflies and damselflies on their list, including five spotted for the first time in the county last year. The insects fall into different categories; the Solems' list includes 23 types of pond damsels, 11 types of clubtails, seven types each of darners and spreadwings, and three types of spiketails.

"We won't necessarily know the results of what we do," said Joanne Solem, a retired teacher, "but our hope is that a long time in the future, somebody will find some benefit from it."

When the Solems became interested in dragonflies, they had to study the Latin names because there were no consistent English names. The Dragonfly Society of the Americas, a nonprofit group founded in 1988, helped change that. Members of the Binghamton, N.Y-based organization realized the group would never grow unless it developed standard English names for the more than 425 species of dragonfly found in North America.

Now, instead of a "Dromogomphus spinosus," the organization's 200 to 300 members can spy a "black-shouldered spinyleg"; instead of "Libellula luctuosa," they get to say "widow skimmer," which is easier to remember because both males and females wear black stripes like a mourner's veil on their wings.

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