A PAIR of damsel-flies steered through the air toward some plants, called pipewort, that were growing in the shallow water at the edge of a quiet pool. They were flying low and they came rather gently and slowly, and not with the swift rush of their larger and stronger cousins, the dragon-flies, that were darting by in the air above them.
Mr. Damsel held Mrs. Damsel by a clasp at the tip of his tail that fitted, like a tiny bracelet, into a groove in her shoulders. That is a queer way of flying, but it is not the only odd thing these two little creatures did. In fact, there was not time, during the next half-hour, to stop wondering about one strange action before they were doing something else even more astonishing.
A pair of damsel-flies came through the air.
The color of Mrs. Damsel was soft grayish blue and black. Altogether she was only about an inch and a quarter in length, so there was not room for any part of her to be really large. Her head was much wider than it was long, and it reached from one round eye at the left side to another round eye at the right side. It was fastened to her thorax in such a narrow place that it looked as if it would drop off if she twisted it. But she never did lose her head, so the fastening must have been stronger than it seemed to be. She could eat and see with her head.
Her thorax was the second part of her body, and she used it in walking and climbing and flying. There were six jointed legs beneath and four thin, gauzy wings above.
The third part of her body was her abdomen. This was very slender, and much of the time she held it straight, though it was jointed and could be moved and bent. She could breathe with her abdomen, for, as perhaps you know, insects do not breathe through holes in their heads. She could do something else with this third part of her body too, as you shall see.
Mr. Damsel was somewhat the same size and shape as Mrs. Damsel but his color was brighter. Near his head and at his tail end he was glistening blue, as shiny as if he had been touched with some beautiful enamel paint.
They alighted on a pipewort stem. Mr. Damsel loosed the wee clasping bracelet at the tip of his tail and rested quietly on the little round blossom on the end of the stem. His four clear wings were folded close together along his slender body, and not held wide apart like the wings of a resting dragon-fly. His body stuck straight out in the air in a stiff position.
Mrs. Damsel turned and crept headfirst down the stem very quickly. Just as she reached the water she paused a moment and moved her wings. I am not sure what she did with them, but they looked as if they were wrapped about her body in such a way that they made a little gauzy bag filled with air. Then she crept down the stem until she reached the bottom of the pond.
She did not seem at all afraid to leave the warm, sunny air and climb headlong into the cool water below. She went eagerly, as if she had a most important errand. And so she had, for Mrs. Damsel went into the pond to lay her eggs. Some kinds of damsel-flies push their eggs into stems and leaves of plants just under the surface of the water. Others have different interesting ways of putting their eggs into good places where they can hatch. But no kind has a better way than the blue damsel-flies of this story; these have the habit of always climbing down to the bottom of a pond before they find a suitable place for their eggs.
Mrs. Damsel went to the bottom of the pond to lay her eggs.
As soon as she reached the base of the pipewort stem, Mrs. Damsel walked slowly among the bits of soft, brown leafy rubbish at the bottom of the pond, and made her way carefully through tangles of little water plants. She poked the tip of her abdomen here and there, and left her eggs in places that were good nests for them. While she was busy in this way, she went nearly twenty inches from the pipewort stem down which she had climbed.
Now and then she thrust the slender third part of her body between her wings, which glistened in the water as if they held a bubble of air. I think she was breathing when she did this. There had been a time when Mrs. Damsel had lived day and night in the water for nearly a year. That was when she was young. At the tail end of her body she then had three flap-like gills with which she breathed. When she grew old enough to have wings and live in the air, she lost her gills, so she could not breathe that way any more.
Mrs. Damsel stayed under water a long time for a creature without gills. After she had been down for about a quarter of an hour, Mr. Damsel, who had been waiting on the plant overhead, flew away. But he did not go high into the air. He flew back and forth, a few inches above the surface of the water. As he flew he seemed to be watching for something. Now and again he alighted, and while he rested he still seemed to be watching.
While Mr. Damsel waited he watched the surface of the water.
He was not looking for food. Tiny midges and other insects he liked to eat flew near and he did not touch them. He was waiting for something that was more important than dinner, and he did not stop watching long enough even to snatch a mouthful.
Twenty minutes went by and Mrs. Damsel was still at the bottom of the pond laying eggs, and Mr. Damsel was still watching the surface of the water for something that had not come. Twenty-five minutes passed and Mrs. Damsel was still poking her abdomen among the stems of water plants as if she would never stop; and Mr. Damsel was flying back and forth just a few inches above the water with level flight—no higher, no lower, no faster, no slower.
Then suddenly something disturbed Mrs. Damsel. Perhaps the painted turtle that lived in the pond thrust her head too near. Mrs. Damsel did not walk twenty inches back to her pipewort stem to climb out of the water. She did not even wait to climb up the nearest stem of all. What she did was merely to let go of everything she was touching at the bottom of the pond and rise straight to the top—as straight as a bubble. While she was coming up through the water—her wings looked silvery, as if they still held a little air.
The instant Mrs. Damsel's head was above the water, Mr. Damsel saw her. He flew swiftly to her, and with a motion so quick that no one could see just how he did it, he clasped the little bracelet at the tip of his tail into the groove in her shoulders. Then, with hardly a pause, he continued his flight, pulling Mrs. Damsel out of the water as he went. As soon as her wings reached the air she shook them and spread them, and they seemed as fresh and straight and dry as if she had not been in the water at all.
As for the eggs at the bottom of the pond among the plants, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Damsel ever went back to see what became of them. Perhaps, if you live near a pond, you may like to go and see if they hatched. You can know a young damsel-fly, you may remember, by the three little flap-like gills on its tail.
A very young boy from Holiday Farm liked to watch the damsel‑flies.