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Friday, May 19, 2017

Flame Skimmer Dragonfly – Libellula saturata

Flame Skimmer - Libellula saturata (female): perched, hunting

The warm weather of late spring brings many interesting insects to S. California gardens.  Among the most fascinating are the dragonflies.  From May through fall, dragonflies may be seen in any garden providing insects for them to eat.  One of the more common – at least in western Los Angeles County - is the Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata.  The scientific name for this species is pronounced lie-BELL-you-luh  sat-you-RAY-tuh.

Dragonflies and the closely-related damselflies are carnivorous insects in the order Odonata.  The odonates are an ancient group of insects: fossil dragonflies are  documented from well before the time of the dinosaurs (early ancestors from the Carboniferous Period).  At that time, some odonates were huge, with wingspans several feet wide.  Today’s dragonflies are smaller, but still have some of the prehistoric characteristics that make them ‘living fossils’.

Dragonflies have several notable characteristics.  First they have relatively large heads, equipped with large, compound eyes.  In fact, dragonfly vision is among the best in the world.  Dragonflies also have two sets of elongated wings, which allow them to maneuver in flight in astounding ways.

Like many insects, dragonflies go through several developmental stages before reaching adulthood.  True to their ancient lineage, the juvenile forms (nymphs) are aquatic or semi-aquatic.  Eggs are laid in water, on vegetation near water or in other moist places.  That’s why dragonflies are commonly seen around ponds, pools, marshes and slow-moving streams.   If you have dragonflies in your garden, there likely is a water source nearby.

Flame Skimmers (Libellula saturata) and Neon Skimmers:
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Claremont CA
Flame skimmers are among the larger local dragonflies.  They belong to the family Libellulidae – the Skimmers – the largest dragonfly family, with over 1000 species.  This family includes dragonflies that hunt for prey while flying, as well as those who perch and wait for prey.  The Flame skimmer is one of the latter, making it relatively easy to photograph. 

Flame Skimmers are native to western U.S. from ID and WY to California, TX and northern Mexico.  Adults range in size from 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm) long.  The males are entirely bright orange, including their body, eye, legs and wings.  We don’t have good photographs of a male, but recommend the excellent images from references 1 and 2, below.     The only local species that are remotely similar are the Neon Skimmer (more brilliant red in color) and the Cardinal Meadowhawk (usually only seen in the mountains in our area).

Flame Skimmer - Libellula saturata (female):
Females (above) are a lighter, browner orange (or even brown) with yellow markings.  Their wings have less of an orange tint than do the males (male wings are orange to ½ their width).  The females also have a conspicuous swelling on the 7th section of their abdomen (see arrow on photo above).

Adults will eat almost any soft-bodied flying insect including mosquitoes, flies, butterflies, moths, mayflies, and flying ants or termites.  In short, they are good natural pest control agents – although they also eat butterflies and other pollinators. Flame Skimmers hunt by perching on a rock or upright branch to wait for prey. They’re always on the alert for big, scary creatures (like you), as well as their next meal.  They then dart out to catch the hapless insect.  Watching them hunt is fascinating! 

Flame Skimmers lay their eggs in warm water.  That’s why they are often seen near shallow ponds, lakes, slow-moving streams, warm marshes and even hot springs.     Males are often seen cruising such site, which they defend from other males. The adults mate during the primary flight season (May-September). After mating, females lay their eggs by dipping their abdomens into the water, releasing the eggs.

Flame Skimmer - Libellula saturata (female): this species
 perches to hunt
The immature nymphs (naiads) live in mud on the bottom of warm ponds, streams, and springs. Like the adults, they wait for their prey to pass by, affording them protection from other predators.   The nymphs become quite large (over 1 inch (28 mm) long) and look like a stocky, hairy insect, with a rounded abdomen.  We don’t have any naiad photos, but recommend those in references 3 and 4, below.   If you run into them when cleaning your pond, just release them back into the mud.

Naiads feed on a wide variety of aquatic insects, such as mosquito larvae, other aquatic fly larvae, mayfly larvae, and freshwater shrimp. They will also eat small fish and tadpoles.   When mature, the adults emerge at night.

Flame Skimmers (Libellula saturata; males) perched and Neon Skimmers (flying):
 Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Claremont CA

Watch for these colorful dragonflies in your summer garden.  Try to get some good pictures, and upload them to the iNaturalist site (https://www.inaturalist.org/).  If you have a pond, you might even be lucky enough to see a nymph!





We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about Duskywing butterflies or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

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