Here be Dragons…

The first things to arrive in a new pond are always the insects. If you build the pond during the warmer months, pond skaters will find it and land pretty much as soon as you start to fill it. They find ponds by looking for reflective surfaces, but I still think it’s pretty amazing as you don’t see them flying around. At least I never have. I was much more excited by the whirligigs though – those amazing silvery beetles that cruise around the pond and when disturbed swim rapidly round and round in circles. There are quite a few species in Britain and I’ve never attempted to ID ours. When I first started the pond there were up to 30 at a time – I counted them – but now there are only 5 or 6 – they need open water to thrive.

The most spectacular species though, were the dragonflies – or more specifically the broad-bodied chaser, Libellula depressa. This is a common enough dragonfly, but its’ behaviour never fails to entertain. The males are bright blue and highly territorial. In my case the pond is only big enough to support a single territory, but in the event it is apparently desirable real estate and hotly contested. One male takes up the dominant station, a patch of sedge at the pond margin, whilst a further three or four others position themselves in strategic locations in low bushes near the pond. The arrival of a female is the signal for frenetic aerial dogfights as all the males, with loud clattering of wings, pursue her in a line so that the result is a bit like a dragonfly version of the Red Arrows. The successful male grasps the female behind the head, mates with her in the heart shape that dragonflies make when mating, and then, still holding her so that other males cannot also mate with her, flies in tandem while she lays batches of eggs by dipping her abdomen repeatedly into the water. If you look carefully you can see the tiny eggs as they sink (broad bodied chasers are pretty fearless, so this is generally fairly easy with a little stealth).

Azure damselflies Coenagrion puella laying eggs. The blue male guards and holds onto the greener female.

Sadly don’t get many other dragonflies up here – it’s relatively exposed. There are a few damselflies – mainly large red damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula and azure damselfly Coenagrion puella. There’s also the odd other species of dragonfly, notably hawkers (Aeshna spp. – we’ve had common and migrant). There are also golden-ringed dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii, the huge black and yellow species that is pretty common in the uplands. It’s really a stream species and I’ve found the larvae in our local stream, but last year I found a female laying eggs in the muddy margins of the pond. I don’t know how they did, but this summer I’ll have a look for the larvae. As far as I know there is no record of them breeding in standing waters.

I’ve not seen too many dragonflies yet this year, but it’s relatively early still and the cold spring will have delayed emergence. The garden has quite a number of young trees now so hopefully these will provide a more sheltered microclimate for these beautiful insects.

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