Tomato Cage with Flame Skimmer
Tomato cage with Flame Skimmer.

By: Marcia Wolfe
Valley Ag Voice

Tomato cage with Flame Skimmer
Tomato cage with Flame Skimmer. Photo: Marcia Wolfe

Sitting at the table on the back patio I can see just part of the backyard rimmed by pine trees, hawthorn, willow, eucalyptus, and the liquid amber trees. They bound the west and north side of the pool. A couple of weeks ago I was eating lunch at the patio table when I first saw him again. He came zooming down low across the pool and swooped back again. And, he kept swooping back and forth across the water, and then he disappeared.

He is about three inches long and colored with the brightest iridescent orange color you can imagine. He has two sets of wings that extend about an inch and a half to two inches further out on either side of his body. He is absolutely beautiful. When I finished eating he was back. A brilliant flame skimmer, or red skimmer, or sometimes called firecracker skimmer. He is not a “true bug” in the technical sense of the term at all. He is s a type of large dragonfly, large being the operative word. He is of the insect order Odonata- the order of dragonflies. The name of the order comes from the Latin word, meaning toothed, as they have particularly large mandibles (jaws) for capturing and chewing their prey. His entire body is bright orange, including its legs and wing veins. The females apparently look similar, except the color is much more faded and light. I have yet to observe any of the females.

Last year there were several I observed who hunted over the pool and yard during the summer, but at that time there were about three of them. I had a bunch of tomato plants with wire cages growing north of the end of the pool last year, and they used to perch on the wires of the cages and scan across the pool and yard for insects. I gave up on tomatoes last year, having failed; so there were no wire cages for him to perch on now. I wondered if I put one upwill he go perch on it? So I went to the shed, grabbed a wire cage, and stuck it up on a pot of geraniums. It wasn’t 2-3 minutes, and the skimmer was back. He started perching on the wire of the tomato cage between his trips back and forth across the pool, just like he had never been gone all winter! I thought that was pretty incredible. He has a really good memory. Then I wondered if it were the same one that did that last year? I tried to research their life history, and with the exception ofdescriptions of mating and the larval naiad (nymph) stages in the water, I could find nothing except a statement that they are “long-lived”. So, maybe it was the same one?

I walked over to the cage where he was perched to try to get a better look,butat first he flew off. But then I told him it was OK, and he came back. His eyes are huge and as I talked with him while he was perched of the wire, I could see his eyes moving, looking at me. It was amazing. I told him I wasn’t going to whack him, and it was OK. Then he started hunting again, swooping back and forth across the pool landing back on the wires next to me. On the next trip back over the pool, he turned and swooped down, capturing a relatively long-legged insect of some kind with cream colored legs I could see squirming from between his mandibles (jaws). But alas for it, there was no escape.

Their preferred habitat is near warm ponds, slow-moving streams or rivers, and hot springs, particularly up north in Idaho where it tends to be colder. They also use public gardens and backyards, with the exception of avoiding polluted ponds.

Following breeding, the male and female separate. The females lay their eggs in quiet shallow pools by dipping their abdomen in the water. She may deposit her eggs in several separate locations, presumably to minimize the potential thee young eat each other. [We humans have difficulty assuming things about people, so I am not sure how we do it about insects?? There simply is so much we do not know.] So, their shallow quiet requirement for water makes it more than likely they do not rear in my pool, as it is generally far from quiet. However, several of my neighbors have pond fountains, so it’s possible they could rear there. But more than likely they come from the edges of the Kern River, where there may be shallow water and eddies. The young naiads,which live in and adjacent to water, feed on aquatic insects and aquatic larvae of all kinds, and sometimeseven ontiny fish or tadpoles as well.On the other hand, the adults will eat almost any soft-bodied flying insect, including flies, moths, termites, mosquitos, flying ants, – anything flying that isn’t too hard and crunchy. These flame skimmers are one of the reasons to which I attribute the low number of flying insects, especially flies and mosquitoes, in my backyard!!

Yesterday,even though I didn’t see the “big boy,” I saw two smaller flame skimmers, but I imagine he’ll be back soon.

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