Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
“ . . It soon became apparent that I had become witness to a predatory blood bath of dynamic proportions. Gnats and mosquitoes were dying by the thousands!”
Back when I was a school kid, organized summer youth activities were virtually nonexistent. Consequently, we invented our own entertainment. For boys, the Dog Days of August were mostly spent on things like fishing, exploring the local creek bottoms, or playing kick-the-can with the usual gang of neighborhood adolescents.
There was one activity, however, that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Spending a few days at the farm of my Uncle Virgil Lovik was the most anticipated event on my summer itinerary. Located just south of Winnebago County’s Rice Lake, the farm had everything a city boy could want — milk cows, a yard full of chickens, cousins — There was even a horse to ride.
But the trip wasn’t all play. We also got to bale hay. On the diversified family farms of the early 1960s, baling was serious business. Once the hay had been cut, gathering and storing the fragrant summer crop became top priority. As soon as the morning sun had sufficiently dried the curing grasses, we’d take to the field. Uncle Virgil drove the popping John Deere tractor which pulled the mechanical baler, which pulled the hay rack. My job was to neatly stack the hay on the flat rack as soon as the baler spit them out.
As the noisy procession bumped and swayed its way across the field, huge swarms of gnats and mosquitoes would rise from the fragrant windrows. At times, the high pitched whine of a million tiny wings could even be heard above the rhythmic pounding of the old time baler. Without fail, the activity would draw a hungry crowd of barn swallows, all eager to cash in on the bountiful supply of flying insects. Occasionally, the baler drew other winged creatures as well.
The most dramatic example occurred late one afternoon when a lone dragonfly suddenly appeared from the direction of a nearby pasture slough. It was a huge green darner, and the elegant streamlined creature took full and immediate control of my senses. For several seconds, the darner hovered in place and appeared to be sizing me up with its giant set of compound eyes. It then flew backward a foot or two before blasting forward again with incredible speed. The dragonfly suddenly hit the brakes and then quickly returned to its former position, hovering directly beside me.
Only then did I see the reward of its effort, a plump mosquito held gently but firmly in the dragonfly’s front legs. Although the hovering darner appeared to be stationary, the insect was maintaining a steady position a few feet to my right which meant it was traveling at the exact same speed as the swaying hayrack. Apparently satisfied that I posed no eminent threat, the dragonfly turned its attentions back to the mosquito. Using its legs to maneuver to its prey into position, the darner’s pincher-like mouth parts went to work. It was not a pretty sight. Within seconds the hapless mosquito had been sliced, diced, shredded, and swallowed. As soon as the meal was finished, the dragonfly blasted forward again. This time, I got to see it make the kill — another plump, blood sucking mosquito.
A second dragonfly appeared over the field, and then a third. The trio quickly became a squadron, and then a battalion as hundreds — perhaps thousands — of winged predators converged overhead. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Everywhere you looked, hunting dragonflies appeared to fill every square foot of the afternoon sky.
The table was set and, without further ado, the darners’ feast began. Hovering, darting, grasping, and shredding — the predacious insects were making their own brand of hay. I soon discovered that the best way to observe a successful hunt was to pick a single dragonfly and then try to stay with it. Dramatic results were never more than seconds away. The hayfield had suddenly become an Open Air Classroom of the highest order, and it soon became apparent that I had become witness to a predatory blood bath of dynamic proportions. The carnage was without parallel. Gnats and mosquitoes were dying by the thousands!
Completely mesmerized by the unfolding spectacle, I lost all consciousness of my surroundings. My complete attention was focused on that sky filling horde of giant dragonflies; all intent on annihilating any and every insect that crossed their paths.
A sudden bump on the hayrack and a hearty shout from my uncle jarred me back to reality. I guess the show had been even better than I realized. I’d completely missed the last three hay bales as they hit the rack. The last bale had actually fell to the ground and now lay broken beneath the wagon. Good thing my uncle was an even tempered Norwegian.