Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Don’t Fear the Dragonfly

I wrote this post several month ago right after starting this blog, then I decided to let it “marinate”. I wondered if maybe I was making too big a deal out of the topic, so instead I wrote and published Do Dragonflies Bite or Sting? as a more informative piece without the psychoanalysis (something for which I have absolutely no training). Since then I have noticed an interesting trend. That post has received far more views than any other post on my blog, and nearly all readers found it with Internet searches using phrases like, “dragonfly bite”, “dragonfly sting”, “do dragonflies bite”, and “do dragonflies sting”, and many other variations along those lines. In fact, those search phrases are the top four phrases which have brought visitors to my blog. So maybe there are a lot more people being bitten or stung by dragonflies than I realize—something which I have a hard time believing, or there really is a lot of fear of being bitten or stung based only on misconceptions. I suspect it’s the latter in a majority of cases. Read on and let me know what you think.

By Dodd, Mead and Company (New
International Encyclopedia) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
A segment of the population seems to have a deep-rooted fear of dragonflies beyond the regular everyday aversion to “bugs” common to so many. I sense this fear is not the result of direct experience with dragonflies, and I also suspect many of these people don’t even understand why they feel the way they do. I just read that the phobia of dragonflies is called “dragoferosus”—a little party trivia for you. But I’m not talking about something that rises to the level of a phobia—at least I don’t think I am—it’s more of a subconscious fear.

Maybe it has to do with reputation-tarnishing folklore surrounding dragonflies. Names like “devil’s darning needle”, “horse stinger”, “ear cutter”, and “eye poker”, and the notion that during the night they will sew shut the mouths of lying children, scolding women, and cursing men sure don’t help their cause. European folklore frequently associated dragonflies with the nasty red guy downstairs with horns and cloven hooves which doesn’t make anyone popular. I don’t know—I never heard any of this bad press when I was a kid (the 70s primarily), but then maybe that’s why I never had a fear of dragonflies.

Some people certainly do think, or are afraid that, dragonflies will bite or sting them. A few months ago, soon after I started this blog I posted Do Dragonflies Bite or Sting?, and that is by far my most popular post garnering frequent Internet search hits. The short, quick response to this notion is that it doesn’t happen. A free-flying dragonfly will never bite or sting a person as a defensive measure the way a yellow jacket or honey bee might when agitated. Swat at them all you want and there will be no retaliation. The complete answer is a bit more complicated and I go into that in the above post. In the mean time, just remember the short, quick answer and you’ll be fine. So, it doesn’t seem that biting and stinging contribute in a significant way to this general fear of dragonflies.

By Drury, Dru, 1725-1803.
Westwood, J. O. 1805-1893. [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe it’s the large size of some dragonflies; maybe it’s their command of the air space with powerful yet agile flight; maybe it’s that, at times, they seem to possess a level of sentience, perception, and understanding unmatched by other insects. I admit that I’m biased, but I just don’t get the sense of a conscious, thinking being when I see a butterfly flutter by. On the other hand, when I see a darner busily hunting or searching out females and it hovers for a moment to make a quick assessment of me, there’s a very real sense that there is conscious thinking going on—something far more than instinctual response to stimuli. I’m not saying that there really is this level of conscious thought going on, but the perception that it is occurring is real enough.

I’m reminded of a line from the movie The Mothman Prophecies (2002): Richard Gere’s character asks an old professor-type why the mysterious mothmen were doing what they were doing, and the response was “You noticed them. And they noticed you noticing.” Maybe when it appears that dragonflies notice you noticing, it naturally imparts a sense that they are thinking about you, and maybe that’s a little bit scary to some people?

Whatever reason people fear dragonflies, I have to think that it is based almost entirely on misinformation, misconception, and, maybe in some cases, nothing at all. Cases of biting and stinging only occur in particular circumstances (such as handling them), and even then only rarely. I have been been nibbled by dragonflies while handling them, but that was my fault, and it was always more startling than painful. I have never been stung during the many years that I’ve been chasing them. The benefits of having dragonflies around (by eating other flying insects) far outweigh any remotely possible painful interaction by multiple orders of magnitude. Any other reason to fear dragonflies simply doesn’t have substance.

Trust me. Don’t fear the dragonfly.


  1. I think it is because of the old wive's tales about them stinging, sewing your mouth up (really! I heard that ridiculous legend as a kid.) Just yesterday I was telling my 8-year-old visiting grandson that dragonflies do not sting. We have had a lot of them sailing over the clearing near the chicken coop lately, and he was leary of going down there because of them. I explained that they eat mosquitoes, of which we have an abundance here in rainy Minnesota this year. I compared the long abdomen to the shape of a helecopter and said it helps ballnce the insect in flight (as it does) and he accepted that. Next day, he was pointing out dragonflies to ME and not at all afraid!

  2. Jim,
    Agreed, they will NOT swoop down and attack you; however, when handling particularly large anisopterans, and trying to coax them into those little paper triangles, I HAVE occasionally been nipped. As you say--"startling", rather than "painful".

  3. I was thinking about your post while out walking yesterday, enjoying the large dragonflies in the marsh (I know nothing about them and identify them only by "the red one", or "the big blue one")... I think the fear-factor may be because dragonflies are impervious to our presence and in fact seem to be display an in-your-face who are you and what are you doing in my space attitude before deciding we're nobody and they can ignore us. Probably fanciful, but I can see where we humans could find that disturbing :o)

  4. Even if they don't attack you, I am still terrified! So much so that I ran right into a door trying to run from one. One time I had to go to a friends house until it was out of my house. It is just some thing I have to live with I guess.

    1. That's too bad, because you are missing out on some wonderfully amazing creatures.