by Rhodri Phillips
Identification: The hairy hawker is the UK’s smallest species of hawker dragonfly at 5 – 6cm in length. Found throughout Europe this species can be seen flying low above open water sources including ponds rivers and even canals. As the name implies, one of easiest ways to tell it apart from other hawker species is its hairy body. The black bodied male can also be identified by its blue pear-shaped spots and blue eyes, while the female has yellow spots and brown / golden eyes.
Life cycle: Adults of the species become active as early as March, making them one of the first dragonfly species to emerge. Taking to the air in early spring they will continue to be active and mate until late July, although most mating activity occurring in April and May. During this period males will set up territories to attract females and defend any eggs that have been laid. While dragonflies may seem peaceful when spotted resting on a branch, they are actually quite aggressive and can be spotted engaging in air to air battles between the reedbeds. Fighting for the best territory and chance to mate, the males will often grapple with each other mid-air, using their strong jaws to bite and tear at each other’s wings. In some cases, this ferocious battle can be fatal for the loser.
It is this deadly fight that attracts the females, mating with the victor should they emerge uninjured. Mating can look uncomfortable as they use their flexible tails to physically attach to each other using special grooves in their abdomens. During the mating season several clutches of eggs will be laid by each female, hatching 3 – 4 weeks later. The larval stage is completely aquatic, living in the water for almost 2 years before it reaches maturity and sheds its wingless form.
Species Importance: Hawker dragonflies are vital hunters in their ecosystems, predating and helping to manage a number of other pest species like aphids. Their ability to catch prey while flying takes advantage of a niche that few other insects can occupy. However, it is their nymph stage that provides the most benefit to the aquatic habitats they are found in. While their adult form may be a formidable predator (to other insects), their early stages provide a much-needed food source for many amphibian and aquatic species. Toads in particular seem to have a taste for young dragonflies, including the endangered Natterjack found in the UK. However even the nymphs provide a level of pest control, helping to regulate the number of mosquito lava which can sometimes overwhelm habitats when dragonflies are absent. As such, all stages of dragon flies can help regulate their ecosystems.
Natterjack toad. Photo byJohn Cameron on Unsplash
Conservation status: The presence of the hairy hawker in the UK is a little odd for its conservation standing. The species was first recorded in 1993 but has since established itself throughout much of Southern England and Wales. So while It is still scarce in most areas, the population size of the species is growing steadily. The origin of the species in the UK is unknown, but it is likely it arrived naturally from another area of its range in much of Europe. This has in part lead to a discussion of whether the species should be considered invasive or not. The hairy hawker is typically found in slightly warmer areas than other species of dragonfly, with the changing UK climate being suggested as a possible explanation of its arrival. Globally the species is doing well, although similar shifts in distribution are being witnessed in other countries. But the species appears to be able to adapt to changes in conditions well and is still listed as least concern by the IUCN.