Snake Doctors

Parents will tell things to their children so they will think twice about getting into things.  For example, if a snapping turtle bites you, it won’t turn loose of you until it thunders.  Even if you cut it’s head off, it won’t turn loose of your fingers until it thunders.  As kids, we believed what we were told. After all, would Mom or Dad lie to us?  Dad told us numerous times the snapping turtle tale.  One other thing he told us was that dragonflies were called ‘Snake doctors’.  If a snake is hurt, the Snake Doctor would nurse it back to health.  You didn’t want to get near an injured snake, as it wasn’t in a good mood after it was put back together by the Snake Doctor.  We didn’t know they were called dragonflies until we were much older.

There was a pond on the property we rented from the Walkers off of Frankfort Road in Tuscumbia, to keep our herd of Polled Herefords on.  It was very overgrown around it, and had lots of Snake Doctors flying around.  Most of them were the ones with a brown square patch on each wing that made them look like they were flying with a flag on a stick instead of wings.  With that many Snake Doctors around, there had to be lots and lots of injured snakes for them to heal.  Every snake around the pond was called a cottonmouth, even though most were harmless water snakes.

Dragonflies have been around over 300 million years.  Back then, they had two-foot wingspans.   Species today have a wingspan of only two to five inches. About 5,000 different species exist in the world found all over the globe except Antarctica.  The United States has 450 different species.     Adult dragonflies will only live around two to six months.  Most of their life cycle is spent in the water as nymphs.      Once an egg hatches, it can live anywhere from six months to six years as a nymph.

How did the term Snake Doctor get started?  According to a musician/artist friend of mine the term SNAKE DOCTOR was originated by Erstwill Thumbflatte in April of 1645 BC. and was initially brought into American popular culture by Mildred Yaddler in September of 1897.  This is the same person who took one of my photos of a pelican in front of Wilson Dam and gave it sun glasses, tennis shoes and a shawl when he painted it.

So how did the term Snake Doctor really get started?   The term has been around since about 1800.  It originated in inland Virginia and is primarily used in South Midland and Southern U.S.   About eighty different names have been found for dragonflies depending on which part of the USA and county you are in.  The South seems to have the greatest concentration of names.  Regionally, in the U.S. you can find darner, darning needle, devil’s darning needle, ear sewer, mosquito fly, mosquito hawk, needle, skeeter hawk, snake doctor, snake feeder, spindle, Hellgrammite, and Dobsonfly . Snake Feeder is found in the Midland area.  In the West, Upper North, and New England you will hear it called a darner, darning needle, or, less commonly, a devil’s darning needle, and those in the Upper North also refer to it just as a needle; those in Coastal New Jersey, a spindle; and those in the San Francisco Bay area, an ear sewer.  Several of the names come from the way dragonflies back and forth over an area, much like darning socks.  In Europe, they are considered evil, and commonly known as “devil’s darning needle” and “ear cutter”.  Folklore belief was that the “devil’s darning-needle sew together the fingers or toes of a person who went to sleep within its reach,” according to the 1899 book Animal and Plant Lore. It would also “sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children, and profane men, and sting you to death,” and enter the ears and penetrate the brain of a person.

Children in Europe are told that an ear cutter will cut the ears of children or sew their mouths up if they lie.  Little boys who skip school will have their ears sewed up.   In Romania, you may hear Devil’s Horse or Hell’s Mare.   it was believed that the dragonfly was Saint George’s horse which was cursed by the devil and became a giant flying insect.   In Sweden, they are called Devil’s Steelyard, as they will circle a person weighing and measuring their soul.  Trolls would send them to poke out the eyes of their enemies.  The Welsh thought of them as an adder’s servant. South American counties, they are called ‘horse killer’ or ‘horse biter’.  In areas of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and the Upper Midwest it may be called a helicopter.  In California, Delaware, Washington, and South Dakota, the insect might be called an airplane, airplane bug, and airplane fly.

They do have a good reputation in some cultures. They represent swiftness and activity in some Native American tribes.  and for the Navajo they symbolize pure water, and are a symbol of renewal after a time of great hardship.  Dragonflies are commonly found on Zuni pottery as a double-barred cross.  They also appear on Pueblo necklaces and on Hopi rock art.  They are symbols of courage, strength, and happiness in Japanese culture, appearing in art and literature.

What are they good for?

A single clutch of around 1500 eggs laid by the female, take about seven days to hatch.  Most of a dragonfly life cycle is aquatic in the water in a larvae stage or nymph, usually up to three years in smaller species, up to five years in larger species.  They will molt from six to fifteen times as they grow.  They breathe through fills present in the rectum.  As nymphs, they are voracious and eat just about anything, mosquitoes, tadpoles, fish, other insect larvae and even each other. We need all the skeeters eaters we can get. They are extremely fast swimmers and will eat just about anything that moves under the water surface.  When pursuing food, they will eject water from an anal opening which acts like a jet propulsion system for a quick blast of speed.  Not many will escape from the nymph.

When it is time for the nymph to leave the water, it stops eating, and under the cover of darkness sticks it’s head out of the water. Gradually it starts to breathe air.  It then crawls out of the water and anchors itself to a plant with its claw.  The skin behind the head starts to split, and the adult dragonfly emerges.

Dragonflies are expert fliers, able to fly straight up and down or hover like a helicopter.  Flying speeds are between 19 to 38 mph with a seven and half mile range daily. Scientists found this out by attaching tiny transmitters to dragonfly wings with a combination of eyelash adhesive and superglue.  They will starve if they can’t fly, as they can only catch prey while flying.  Dragonflies catch insect prey by grabbing with basket shaped legs.  Wings will be ripped off and the body eaten.  Nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, with 30,000 individual facets, they can see all angles except right behind them.

Adult dragonflies, will eat mosquitos, ants, termites, butterflies, gnats, and bees. They are a great control on the mosquito population. A single dragonfly can eat thirty to hundreds of mosquitoes per day.  A dragonfly can eat food equal to its own weight in about 30 minutes.  In human terms that roughly translates into trying to eat as much as 100 pounds during that half hour.  They tend to hunt in groups when large colonies of ants or termites are spotted.

A study of hunting methods by dragonflies in 1999, scientist found that instead of chasing after a prey, they would intercept it. It ensures a meal by flying to where their prey is going to be by calculating the distance of their prey, the direction it’s moving, and the speed it’s flying so that the insect flies right to the dragonflies clutches.

What is the difference between damselfly a and dragonfly?  Damselflies are usually slim, their forewings and hindwings narrow at the base and have similar shapes, and their eyes are widely separated. Most species hold their wings above the abdomen when they are resting. Dragonflies are larger. Their eyes touch near the top of their head. The wings do not narrow at the base; the forewings and hindwings differ in shape. When they are resting, the wings are usually spread.

These mighty insect killers do have enemies.  In the nymph state, they are preyed on by fish, frogs, toads and newts, and other water invertebrates.  Adult dragonflies are eaten by birds, spiders, frogs.  Snakes love snake doctors and they are one of its favorite foods.  So much for that myth that they are snake doctors.

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