Dragonflies: Famed in 
Song & Story

Dragonflies capture people's hearts and minds in a way few insects can. For centuries, they have been entwined in cultural legends and beliefs, and an inspiration for art, poetry, and song.  They inspire diverse emotions, and traditional views of dragonflies have ranged from ominous to benevolent, according to continent and culture. The European belief that dragonflies were harbingers of evil was reflected in the common names cow killer, ear cutter, devil's darning needle, and snake doctor. In the New World, colonists' prejudices formed the basis of colorful American folklore, such as a cautionary tale that those who lied or cursed could find themselves visited in the night by a dragonfly that would sew their mouths shut. Such malicious myths are based on the needle-like appearance of odonates' long, slender abdomens, and possibly their voracious appetites. Dragonflies circling a horse are not goading the animal to frenzy, as the moniker "horse stinger" suggests; rather, they are feeding on flies and mosquitoes that are the true source of the animal's irritation. A dragonfly's mandibles can inflict little more than a sharp pinch on human skin, and though females occasionally try to lay eggs on the leg of a startled bystander, their ovipositors can only insert eggs into plants and soil, not flesh.  
17th century dragonfly-shaped helmet
Other cultures took a kinder view. Dragonflies were creatures of mythos and power to many Native Americans and were common motifs in petroglyphs, pottery, totem poles, and clothing. Hopi and Pueblo peoples associated dragonflies with healing and transformation; they symbolized pure water to the Navajo and strength and protection to Plains tribes. In Japanese culture dragonflies are associated with courage, strength, and happiness. The ancient name for Japan, Akitsushima (秋津島), translates to "Dragonfly Island" and was bestowed by an 11th century Emperor who believed the energy of the dragonfly was sacred. Dragonflies have religious significance for Japanese Buddhists, as the annual mid-August arrival of migratory Wandering Gliders (Pantala flavescens) coincides with the Bon festival, when spirits of ancestors are believed to visit their families. Dragonflies' fast flight and predatory nature made them beloved by samurai warriors, who saw them as symbols of invincibility, as well as by farmers, who appreciated their ability to control pests in rice fields.

The significance of dragonflies in human culture continues to this day. A recent survey by a pop music enthusiast found 100 English-language rock songs recorded in the last few decades whose titles or lyrics contain some form of the word dragonfly. In an ironic twist for an insect with such an ancient evolutionary heritage, dragonflies have also become modern-day models for advanced technology in neuroscience and robotics. Their beauty continues to inspire artists and wildlife watchers, and as a conspicuous link between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, they help promote conservation of less charismatic but equally important members of the aquatic insect community. From legend and folklore to research and education, dragonflies have a long history in many different cultures and a hold upon the human imagination that can hopefully benefit their conservation and enable them to continue enriching the diversity of ecosystems throughout the world.