Abuzz over dragonflies


Bob and Joanne Solem used to be avid birders, until another animal stole the show.

Now, instead of looking skyward, they train their close-focus binoculars on the ground beneath their feet. Green darners, blue dashers and dusky dancers spring into view. Their lives, on lazy summer days, become an endless stream of amber- wings, spreadwings, pond-hawks and baskettails.

The Solems, who live in Laurel, are part of the latest trend in the nature world: dragonfly-watching.

Once the purview of scientists and specialists, dragonflies - and their near cousins, damselflies - are starting to catch the fancy of the public. With the anticipated release of the first-ever pictorial nationwide guide to dragonflies this summer, some believe the trend will soon become a craze.

In the tiny but growing dragonfly-watching community, there is talk of little else.

"It's almost like Harry Potter for nerds," said Don Jewell of Union Mills, attending a dragonfly class with his wife at the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase.

People are hoping the new book, "Dragonflies Through Binoculars," will have the same effect as the "Butterflies Through Binoculars" series, which set off a flurry of butterfly-watching when it came out seven years ago. In those seven years, the North American Butterfly Association has grown more than tenfold.

"This is the first time that people are beginning to look at butterflies and dragonflies and other insects as wildlife," said Jeffrey Glassberg, editor of "Dragonflies through Binoculars" and president of the Morristown, N.J.-based butterfly association. "There was no way for people to get into it before."

Richard Orr, a Columbia entomologist who is considered the foremost expert on dragonflies and damselflies in the Northeast, isn't surprised that dragonflies are following in the footsteps of birds and butterflies.

"It's nice to have a hobby on hot summer days where you can splash around in the water and justify it," he said.

Orr, who fell in love with dragonflies as a boy, calls them "the apex of evolution" and "the center of the universe." Like birds and butterflies, he said, they come in all the colors of the rainbow. Dragonflies need their iridescent colors, Orr said, to identify each other as friends or foes. Their bulging eyes can see nearly 360 degrees horizontally and vertically, and in some cases 80 percent of their brain is devoted to vision. The insects can see colors in addition to ultraviolet and polarized light.

But Orr is most impressed by their flying. They are predators, the hawks and tigers of the insect world, and have the agility to prove it. Their wings contain specialized bends, blood-filled weights and micro-sensory hairs that can tell which way the wind is blowing.

"More than anything else, they are creatures of movement," Orr said. "They can fly upside-down or backwards. No other vertebrate or invertebrate has that type of flight control."

Orr said many people fall for dragonfly- and damselfly-watching because so little is known about the animals that even amateur researchers can make a difference.

That's what attracted the Solems to the hobby five years ago. Now they conduct dragonfly counts in Howard County in hopes that one day their data will serve some scientific purpose. On hot summer days, the kind that dragonflies like best, the Solems often go out twice, first in the morning and again in the afternoon.

"We figured it was something we could really make a contribution to, simply because there were so few other people involved in it," said Bob Solem, a retired analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Solems have more than 80 dragonflies and damselflies on their list, including five spotted for the first time in the county last year. The insects fall into different categories; the Solems' list includes 23 types of pond damsels, 11 types of clubtails, seven types each of darners and spreadwings, and three types of spiketails.

"We won't necessarily know the results of what we do," said Joanne Solem, a retired teacher, "but our hope is that a long time in the future, somebody will find some benefit from it."

When the Solems became interested in dragonflies, they had to study the Latin names because there were no consistent English names. The Dragonfly Society of the Americas, a nonprofit group founded in 1988, helped change that. Members of the Binghamton, N.Y-based organization realized the group would never grow unless it developed standard English names for the more than 425 species of dragonfly found in North America.

Now, instead of a "Dromogomphus spinosus," the organization's 200 to 300 members can spy a "black-shouldered spinyleg"; instead of "Libellula luctuosa," they get to say "widow skimmer," which is easier to remember because both males and females wear black stripes like a mourner's veil on their wings.

Bill Mauffray, a real estate agent in Gainesville, Fla., who also serves as managing director of the International Odenata Research Institute, which studies dragon- flies and damselflies, attributes some of the recent dragonfly buzz to the Internet. Before, he said, enthusiasts existed in isolated pockets. Now fans everywhere can communicate with each other.

"It brought out a lot of people who maybe had a partial interest in them," he said.

In addition to "Dragonflies Through Binoculars," Mauffray said, several regional dragonfly books have come out recently - another sign of growing interest. He said he knows of guides for Florida, Washington, Kansas and California, and others are in the works for Ohio, Illinois and Maine.

But "Dragonflies through Binoculars" will be the first to pull all the regions of the country together. As with birds and plants, different regions sport different species of dragonflies, so a California guide would not be of much use in Maryland.

"The study of dragonflies is where ornithology was 70 years ago," Bob Solem said. That's when the first field guide to birds came out, allowing people to identify them from a distance for the first time. Today there are tens of thousands of avid birders in the country who were weaned on the guidebooks.

Mauffray said he hopes to capitalize on the dragonfly trend. He'd like to start a dragonfly garden, he said, with special plants that attract certain dragonflies. In Japan and the United Kingdom, he said, dragonfly gardens are popular tourist attractions. And he has an idea for a store or a Web site called "Everything Dragonflies" that would sell dragonfly T-shirts and jewelry.

"They've become very popular pop art," Mauffray said.

Sidney W. Dunkle, author of "Dragonflies Through Binoculars," said he began paying attention to dragonflies in 1972, when he was in his mid-30s. At the time, he said, he wanted to be a nature photographer and decided to take pictures of dragonflies because nobody else was doing it.

He quickly abandoned his dream of nature photography, he said - there was no money in it - but became fascinated by dragon- flies and never looked back. He continued taking pictures and eventually earned a doctorate, writing his dissertation on dragonfly larvae.

Dunkle, who lives in Plano, Texas, said he is at work on a guide to the nation's damselflies, which are similar to dragonflies but tend to be smaller. However, he's not planning to quit his day job as a community college biology teacher any time soon. He said making lots of money off dragonflies and damselflies "never was a goal."

Bob and Joanne Solem say they have many friends in the Howard County Bird Club who have said they'll take up dragonfly-watching as soon as they have a book to guide them.

"Birders are becoming aware of anything that flies," Joanne Solem said. "That's a really nice thing, to think the world of natural history is attracting some attention."

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