Under the Prairie Ice

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”–Aldo Leopold

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Polar Vortex! In the Illinois prairie region, all the chatter is about the week’s forecast: wind chill temperatures of 50-plus degrees below zero. Brrr! It’s a good time to dream a little bit about the summer to come.

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One of my favorite tasks as a prairie steward is monitoring dragonflies.  People often ask me in the winter, Where are the dragonflies now? How do they survive the brutal cold? 

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Some, I tell them, like the green darners and black saddlebags, have migrated south to reproduce. Later generations journey back north again, much like the well-publicized monarch butterfly. But most of our dragonflies are still here—in the nymph stage—under the surfaces of streams, ponds, and pools of prairie wetlands, waiting for spring and warmer temperatures. Under the prairie ice.

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Dragonflies and their population changes tell us a lot about our water quality. Dragonfly responses to climate also help us understand what we see happening in the see-sawing temperatures and weather changes in the world around us. Good reasons to care! With this in mind, citizen scientists monitor dragonflies of all species, tracking their numbers each year.

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We need our dragonflies. I’ve spent a lot of time kayaking and looking for dragonflies and damselflies on Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Illinois, just for fun.  But now, in this January cold, the lake is full of ice fisherman.

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Just across the preserve, not far from the ice fishing houses, is my destination—the Urban Stream Research Center. Here, one of our most vulnerable insect species, the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, is being reared.

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Some people dream of meeting sports heroes. Others, their favorite rock star. Me, I dream of seeing the Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) winging its way through a prairie preserve. It’s our only federally-endangered dragonfly. Finicky? Yes! It has a lot of special requirements, including shallow flowing water and time spent in burrows made by the devil crayfish. 

During the winter months, I pore over my favorite dragonfly field guide by Kurt Mead part of the North Woods Naturalist Series

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… and open it to the Hine’s emerald dragonfly spread. Then, I think what it would be like to see the real thing.

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Today, I’ll get part of my wish.

Heading up the project in its third year in the Chicago Region is DuPage County Forest Ecologist Andrés Ortega. His enthusiasm for dragonflies and passion for the project are evident from the first moment of my arrival at the center.

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Andrés reaches into a refrigerator, and pulls out a dozen vials of tiny Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs.

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The dragonfly nymphs are in “diapause,” just as nymphs are outdoors. These nymphs enjoy cool refrigerator temps of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit;  their normal overwintering temperature, Ortega tells me.

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The eggs were gathered from gravid female dragonflies at known breeding sites in DuPage and Cook Counties, Andrés tells me.  Once netted, the tip of the female dragonfly’s abdomen is dipped into water—a process that simulates ovipositing—causing her to release her eggs. After the eggs are harvested, they are taken to a research laboratory in South Dakota. Here, they hatch and are cared for through their first months or even years of nymph life.

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Then, they are driven to Illinois and hand-delivered to Ortega at the Urban Stream Research Center.

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These are ferocious little critters. Andrés tells me they keep similar-sized nymphs with other similar-sized nymphs, as larger ones will enjoy the smaller ones for dinner if thrown together. Cannibalism! It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there. Staff carefully control the water quality (which should not be too clean) and water temperature.

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In the spring, the nymphs will be released into the research center’s indoor raceways. These are long pools that mimic stream-like conditions. The temperature of the water in the raceways is carefully calibrated to reflect the rising temperatures outdoors.

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Raceways are custom made by employees expressly for the dragonfly rearing. Sand, rocks, frayed rope pieces, and plastic aquarium plants offer hiding places for the nymphs. In about mid-May, the nymphs will begin feeding from a menu that includes small crustaceans and midge larvae. The screens and netting will keep midges from escaping and interfering with other research work at the center, such as mussel propagation.

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It will take the dragonfly nymphs about four to five years to reach maturity, from the egg stage to the beautiful creatures of the air I see in my field guide. When ready to emerge, they will be released into suitable nature preserves in the state.

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Ortega tells me that less than one percent of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs survive in the wild. Pretty slim odds, aren’t they?  I’m grateful to people like Andrés Ortega. He is one of our unsung heroes, doing the hard work of keeping part of the natural world from vanishing forever.

The next time you see a frozen prairie stream or pond this winter, think of the many different species of dragonflies waiting to emerge, just underneath the surface. Who knows? This might be the year we see more of the Hine’s emerald dragonflies, cruising through prairie wetlands. I’m planning to show up and look.

How about you?

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The Aldo Leopold quote that opens this essay is from Round River. Leopold is often referred to as the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. Please visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website to learn more about Leopold and his work, which is carried on today.

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Grateful thanks to Andrés Ortega for his tour of the Urban Stream Research Center; his patient answers to all my questions;  his reading and suggested edits for this blogpost (all remaining errors are my own); and his terrific work with dragonflies. Contact him at aortega@dupageforest.org.

Many thanks to super nice guy Kurt Mead, author of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition (2017), and Sparky Stensaas, co-owner of Kollath+Stensaas Publishing, who approved using the cover and pages with the Hine’s emerald dragonfly for this post (and also thanks to photographer Troy Hibbitts whose Hine’s emerald images (thehibbets.net) appear on those pages. If you are interested in dragonflies, you should own this beautiful guide–it is indispensable for Midwestern dragonfly chasers, even if you live a little further south of the North Woods (I live in Illinois).  Order from your favorite local bookseller, or online here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Mt. Hoy, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; cold day at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; hundreds of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) on open water of Springbrook Creek at Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL:  ice fishing shacks on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Cover of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead; interior spread, Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead. Andrés Ortega (Homo sapiens), ecologist, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; vials of Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymphs, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph,Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; water system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; raceway system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; life support system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Fox River, Geneva, IL.

6 responses to “Under the Prairie Ice

  1. Thank you Cindy. I monitored Dragonflies at the restored prairie in Schaumburg a few years ago. They are fascinating creatures. This was another of your wonderful posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your work in Schaumburg, Eileen! Citizen science is a critical part of advancing our knowledge about dragonflies. Grateful for you taking time to read the blog, and for your encouraging words and your comments.

      Like

  2. Andrés Ortega presented at a conference I attended, he described the amazing the work being done to preserve the Hine’s emerald dragonfly! Hats off to him DCFPD and you for spreading the word. Thanks for the in depth look at the workings at the Urban Stream Research Center.

    Liked by 1 person

    • He’s an amazing communicator, and very generous with his information and his time. Grateful for people like him in the world! And grateful for people like you too, Cathy. Thanks for reading, and taking time to leave a comment.

      Like

  3. Cindy, thanks for this fascinating article! I’m so glad to know that there’s hope yet for this particular species. I’m participating in the Ohio dragonfly survey, which will see the third year of the three-year survey finish this year. I’m excited for this year because I have a kayak now, and can get out to explore areas that the other ode hunters around here can’t access.

    Unless you have a problem with it, I will probably link to this article very soon on my own blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kim — so great to hear about your work in Ohio with dragonflies! Good for you. A kayak makes so many dragons and damsels more accessible. I would be grateful for the link–please feel free to do so! Let’s get the word out together about these important insects. Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Happy dragonfly monitoring

      Like

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