The ebony wings come with their delicate beauty

This week comes summer and with it some of the most beautiful flying insects you will encounter in North America.

Not butterflies (beautiful of course), but rather dragonflies and bridesmaids. It’s been a while since I’ve seen dragons and bridesmaids occasionally, but down by the stream that runs behind the house, I met my first big flight of jewel-winged ebony bridesmaids last week and I knew summer was finally arrived.

The ebony wing (Calopteryx maculata) is a large damsel commonly found along shady banks. The male has a bright, iridescent body which may, depending on the light, appear green or blue with large solid black (ebony) wings.

The females are more submissive, but no less beautiful, with brownish bodies and smoky wings with a white rectangular spot (the pterostigma) on the front edge (hence the specific name “maculata” which means spotted). These large dark wings are their most distinguishing feature, the reason for the genus name given to this group, Calopteryx, meaning “beautiful wing”. The ebony wings also have a fairly characteristic fluttering flight, with not as much zoom as other dragons and damsels. Sometimes it can be mistaken for that of a butterfly.

Bridesmaids belong to the same order as dragonflies, Odonata, a word derived from two Greek words meaning “toothed jaw”. As the name suggests, these animals are ferocious predators. They don’t bite humans, but they are some of our most famous mosquito predators, both in the water and in the air.

The young live in the water, hatched from eggs laid in the summer on underwater vegetation. They overwinter in their aquatic form, climbing out of the water as they transform into their adult flying form. Larvae are often at the top of aquatic food chains, especially when larger fish are not present, and therefore are important for controlling mosquito larvae populations. This is one of the reasons mosquitoes often breed more successfully in small stagnant puddles of water such as those that gather in old tires or buckets with no damsels and dragonfly predators to worry about. Adults patrol the air, catching insects as they fly.

This ebony jewelry female turns her head to look at the photographer, Nature News columnist Susan Pike.  This is one of the characteristics that makes these insects seem more human, Pike notes.  Their ability to turn their heads and look with their big eyes is something not all insects can do.

How to distinguish a dragonfly from a damsel? Dragonflies keep their wings open at rest and have their eyes connected on the top of their heads like glasses. Bridesmaids have separate and widely spaced eyes and hold their wings together above the body when at rest. An exception are the spread-winged damsels (there are always exceptions in nature), these keep their wings open at rest. Dragonflies are generally larger and more robust than damsels. Though at 2 inches, jeweled ebony is larger than many dragonflies. His body is leaner and more delicate.