ORONO, Maine — A swarm of khaki-clad entomology enthusiasts descended upon the Black Bear Inn on Friday, turning the hotel into their base camp for this weekend’s annual meeting of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas.
Armed with nets and mosquito repellant, the group of nearly 100 started out early Friday morning for wetlands near and far in search of the state’s numerous dragonfly and damselfly species. Some of the explorers had come from as far away as Texas and Oregon to take advantage of Maine’s diverse waterways, the insects’ favored habitat.
Mark Ward, an entomologist and ecological consultant from Bristol, said the state’s ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and boggy wetlands are “one of the things that makes Maine unique” for a dragonfly study. It serves as a perfect location for those from away “to see some species they’ve never seen before.”
Ward proudly displayed his affection for these four-winged insects, which he described as “little helicopters,” by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with images of dragonflies while he was in the field Friday. He said while they may seem fragile, dragonflies are territorial and the males are constantly fighting one another for space.
“They’re really brutal,” Ward said, describing a territorial dispute as a “battle.”
Out along the banks of a branch of Pushaw Stream in the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge, Ward explained the basic differences between dragonflies and damselflies. Generally, damselflies are smaller and thinner than dragonflies, with eyes spaced apart and wings that fold vertically when landed; dragonflies almost always leave their wings spread when sitting on dry land.
He was quick to stress, however, that the similarities between the two make identification difficult for the amateur. Ultimately, only the shape of the wings can be used to truly separate the two: the hind wing set of dragonflies is shaped much differently from the forward pair, a feature never seen on damselflies.
For most participants at this year’s convention, the weekend is a time to discuss their dragonfly hobbies with others who need no general guidelines to determine what species are buzzing past their heads. Out on the stream, Ward constantly pointed out blurs of colors and called out their respective scientific names in Latin.
“It can be intimidating to newcomers,” Ward said, “but it’s neat to have so many people who can speak this common language.”
While the flying, matured adult form is what commonly comes to mind when thinking of these insects, the majority of their lives are spent in the larval stage underwater for up to eight years depending on the species. When they finally emerge from their watery nurseries, the larvae climb onto a dry surface and slowly break free from their exoskeleton much like a butterfly during metamorphosis, leaving behind a dry shell called exuviae. According to Ward, these exuviae are incredibly important to entomologists studying the hard-to-catch insects as they can be used to determine what species inhabit the area.
Ward demonstrated how difficult it is to snag a matured adult, swinging his net wildly at a large Hagenius brevistylus dragonfly several times before finally catching his prey.
“Sometimes, when you’re doing this, there is that moment when you’re going, ‘Should I swing? Should I wait?’” Ward said, adding that he feels it is “better to have swung and missed than not to have swung at all.”