Dragonflies-The "Mosquito Hawk" of the Tropics

As we are all painfully aware, rain showers in Belize are almost always followed by the hatching of thousands of new mosquitoes. When these menacing pests make their presence known, we quickly find ourselves reaching for the repellent in an attempt to keep bites to a minimum. It's hard to imagine, but if it weren't for one amazing and largely overlooked insect, this world would be swarming with even more mosquitoes.

Dragonflies are only one of a few types of creatures who prey upon mosquitoes, and for that, humans should be thankful. In this and other ways, dragonflies play an important role in maintaining the balance of biodiversity in the coastal ecosystem.

In existence for the past 280-380 million years, dragonflies are some of the most ancient insects around. The first dragonflies that existed were much larger than the present day species, having a wingspan reaching 35 inches. Today, dragonfly wingspans rarely exceed 10 inches, yet these insects are still able to reach speeds of 19 miles per hour. In addition to two elongated wings, dragonflies are equipped with six legs, although they are seldom used for walking. Their abdomen is elongated and they have large heads, a short antennae, and sensitive eyes to assist dragonflies in finding their prey.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
Throughout the temperate and tropical areas of the world, there are over 5,000 species of dragonflies, usually living near water. To reproduce, these creatures lay eggs in mud, water or in the tissue of a plant. Some species also simply drop their eggs (usually several thousand) into water so that they can hatch. During their life cycle, dragonflies experience two stages, first an aquatic (nymph) and then an adult stage. In one to four weeks, the eggs hatch into nymphs and these mature in the water. Before becoming an adult, nymphs molt ten to fifteen times to allow room for growth. As a nymph and an adult, dragonflies fall prey to fish, amphibians and birds. In addition, nymphs have become a popular type of bait used by fishermen and in some areas, particularly in the United States, the fish bait market has significantly affected dragonfly populations.

As predators, adult dragonflies feed on flying insects, such as mosquitoes which they catch on their wings, either by flying around or sitting stationary. Dragonflies are unique in that they are carnivorous, eating other insects in abundance. It is not uncommon to hear of a dragonfly stuffing its mouth with up to a hundred mosquitoes at one time! Known as the "mosquito hawk," dragonflies may be our best defense against a world overcrowded with those bothersome blood-sucking pests. Some believe that as an alternative to the current method of using dangerous insecticides to control the mosquito population (as San Pedro does), perhaps dragonflies should be farmed and released. In several areas of the world, this has proven to be an effective method of ensuring the balance of biodiversity, while also keeping mosquito populations in check, and that is a very good thing.

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