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In the Presence of an Emperor

One of the most entertaining moments I have had recently was down to an insect. Not just any insect, though, something large and colourful – and to its prey, deadly, too. On a warm September afternoon, the Lovely Wife and I stood watching as it hunted, quartering the territory around us as you see large birds of prey do – looking for the moment to grab its prey out of the air and consume it immediately on the wing. It totally ignored us, of course, bar ensuring that it did not actually fly into either of us.

The hunter in question was an Emperor Dragonfly, about 7 cm long, clad beautifully in blue and green, all of which was picked out in the bright sun. Anax Imperator (I admit to looking that up) is a truly impressive sight. It was mostly blue, apparently that makes it likely to have been the male (yes, looked that up too).

The Lovely Wife and I were at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, not far from Ely. The nature reserve, run by the National Trust, includes one of the only fragments of authentic Fen land among a man-made landscape of rich arable farming, droves and waterways. Apparently, it is well known for its dragonflies, and certainly this reputation seemed well earned as we walked along, quickly losing count of the species that seemed to be active. I have always had a soft spot for dragonflies, there is something wonderfully archaic – and for good reasons, similar animals ruled the skies long before the dinosaurs – and yet they are such wonderful aerial acrobats. They are, as you might say, a design classic (and before my biologist friends protest I just mean that, like the original Mini there are cases where something just comes together and perpetuates because, frankly, it’s pretty hard to improve on). They are also terrifying predators, tiny aerial sharks and wo betide any smaller beastie that cannot get out of the way fast enough. They are equally terrifying – if considerably less attractive – in their larval stage. A couple of years I was pond dipping in the garden and fished up a dragonfly nymph – frankly the thing made me nervous, and to them I am this incomprehensible behemoth.

Watching the Emperor trying to catch some of its smaller brethren, I did wonder about the whole concept of scale. It is something I think about every time I, or someone I am with, has their quiet drink in the pub disrupted by a wasp; or the abject terror that some people have of the tiniest spider. To these creatures, even instinctively, we must be too big to compute. To the dragonflies we might as well have been trees, indeed the Lovely Wife joked that since we were standing stock still watching the show, there was every chance that one of the many dragonflies hovering around us might decide were provided a convenient perch (as it happens, we were spared that, this time). But that wasp in the pub is not out to get us – we are just this huge living thing getting in the way, and most of the time they would just ignore us; the real problem is that much of the time we cannot ignore them.

That same day we watched a wasp attempting to prey on honeybees that were intent on their normal work on a flowering bush. Every time the wasp pounced on one of the bees, the intending victim simply dropped to the ground like a stone, effectively getting it away from its attacker. We watched the wasp try again and again, and each time to bees responded in the same way, and then flew back up into the bush to continue their business. Small things can be fascinating, and wasp v bee was another special insect moment.

But it was not a patch on our encounter with the Emperor.

 

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wicken-fen-nature-reserve

https://british-dragonflies.org.uk/species/emperor-dragonfly

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