Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Eastern Amberwing, PERITHEMIS TENERA

from the July 21, 2008 Newsletter, after a visit to Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area in northwestern Tennessee:

The next day we shifted to another shore-side camp, now in Tennessee, and here the water was deeper, the waves bigger, breezes stiffer, and no pondweed. In the afternoon an amberwing dragonfly landed on a twig beside me and I took its picture, above.

I recalled that several amberwing species occur in the US so when I noticed this one's handsome banding on its abdomen and the especially intricate venation of its wings I began hoping that it was one of the rarer ones. However, once I brought out the field guide Dragonflies through Binoculars I saw that in Tennessee, as well as in nearly all of the eastern US, we just have one species, the Eastern Amberwing, PERITHEMIS TENERA, and that's what I had.

So this was a good example of how you can get used to seeing something and stop looking closely, and forget or even never even know that it's so pretty, and such a perfect example of what it is.

That's a male in the picture, females being browner, with clear wings banded with brown. The books says that when this species pulses its abdomen up and down while simultaneously waving its wings it's mimicking wasps and thus putting doubt into the minds of possible enemies. Males select egg-laying sites such as sticks emerging from water, then defend that territory for 3-6 yards around. When a female appears he leads her to his site and hovers above it with his abdomen upcurved. If the female accepts they mate and she plasters her eggs just above the waterline during a hovering flight.

That nicely illustrated dragonfly field guide is full of such information. If you'd like to check it out at Amazon.Com there's a link near the top of the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/insects_.htm.

from the May 23, 2004 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi:

The amberwings trying to lay eggs on my alligator were Eastern Amberwings, PERITHEMIS TENERA, and they're found from New England to Nebraska and New Mexico, southward to the Gulf Coast.

You might wonder how such a conspicuous insect with apparently few defenses can be so common in an area teeming with birds, frogs and other critters who'd seem very interested in eating it. One answer is that amberwings resemble wasps, especially the aggressive, amber-colored species we have who will sting you even if you're perfectly still. Amberwing abdomens are marked with narrow, pale-yellow bands like wasps, and this dragonfly will pulse its abdomen up and down while simultaneously waving its wings just like a wasp. Females even fly with their hindwings and abdomens held in a wasplike manner.

This kind of inter-species mimicry is common in the insect world. Some of the most innocuous flies look too much like bees and wasps for many predators to eat them. Viceroy Butterflies look like Monarch Butterflies, who are so bitter that most birds leave them alone. Mother Nature knows what anybody knows who grows up in a rough neighborhood: If you're not mean yourself, sometimes it helps to at least look mean.