Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Damselfly with unwelcome hangers-on

with 32 comments

Tan Damselfly with Parasitic Mites 2276

When I first saw something like this years ago I thought the little red things were eggs, but then I learned that they’re parasitic mites. Sorry, damselfly.

This July 23rd picture is from the Muir Lake Trail, a place in Cedar Park where I’d never taken pictures before.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 4, 2015 at 5:26 AM

32 Responses

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  1. It could be worse…of course, one insect’s “it could be worse” is another’s misery. I see a lot of these mites, but a lot of wasp and fly larvae too that parasitize caterpillars and other larvae.

    Steve Gingold

    September 4, 2015 at 6:06 AM

    • We recently attended a slide show about wasps and saw a slew of species that parasatize prey. I wonder if that behavior inspired science fiction movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 4, 2015 at 8:01 AM

      • Ichneumons are well known for that. I wouldn’t be surprised if that and a few other movie plots came from this behavior. And, of course, there is the entire story behind “Men In Black”

        Your post reminded me of this image. I would have shared it earlier but all I had until now was my phone. This Calico Pennant is carrying a somewhat heavy load.

        Steve Gingold

        September 4, 2015 at 1:37 PM

        • Thanks for that addition. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a big cluster of parasitic mites.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 4, 2015 at 7:09 PM

  2. Interesting photo with the mites. The ride must be more secure in the first few segments of the thorax.

    Jim in IA

    September 4, 2015 at 6:37 AM

  3. I don’t remember seeing a brown damselfly in nature. The ones I come across are more brilliantly colored. I wondered if this one had been drained of its color because of the parasites, but no: there are several species that tend toward less exuberant decoration.

    I love that you managed to get such a sharp image of the antennae. I wasn’t sure at first that’s what I was seeing, but apparently so. Several sources provided information like this: “[The antennae are] visible… but they’re small, bristly things that most people wouldn’t even notice. They’re definitely shorter than the length of the head.” They’re certainly visible in your photo.

    I wonder how many hangers-on the damselfly can support before she can’t fly any more.


    September 4, 2015 at 7:50 AM

    • I’d say the most common dameselfly color I see here is bright blue, but brown ones aren’t uncommon. I’d never thought about damselfly antennae until you brought that up here. I expect entomologists have a theory about why they’re so small compared to the antennae of many other insects.

      As for how many hangers-on it would take to interfere with flight, my guess is many more than the number shown here. I’ve seen dameslflies and dragonflies that have caught relatively large prey yet seemed to have no trouble flying at all. I’ve also seen these insects flying around in joined pairs during mating, which I assume means one is flying and the other is being hauled as cargo.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 4, 2015 at 7:05 PM

    • P.S. If you check Steve Gingold’s follow-up reply above, you’ll see he’s provided a picture of a dragonfly carrying around a pretty heavy load of parasites.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 4, 2015 at 7:08 PM

  4. That poor thing has quite a load, doesn’t she? There are many more strands to the web of life than I tend to think.


    September 4, 2015 at 8:36 AM

  5. Amazing photo and perhaps there’s something living off the mite too?


    September 4, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    • That’s a good speculation. It reminds me of Jonathan Swift’s quatrain:

      “So nat’ralists observe, a flea
      Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
      And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.
      And so proceeds Ad infinitum.”

      Augustus De Morgan then created a slightly longer version:

      “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
      And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
      And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
      While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 4, 2015 at 7:15 PM

  6. Yikes….. Astonishing detail. Your observations are fascinating.

    Birder's Journey

    September 4, 2015 at 8:58 PM

    • I, too, was pleased with the detail in this shot. Fortunately I was able to get my camera lens perpendicular to the axis of the dameslfly.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 4, 2015 at 9:47 PM

  7. It’s a very beautiful shot, Steve – sharp and detailed…maybe too detailed! I am starting to feel a little uneasy about parasites these days. Great observations of the natural world though. I have never seen parasites on a damselfly before! Fascinating and a little creepy…


    September 5, 2015 at 3:22 AM

    • I was happy with the picture, Jane, because I can’t always manage to get all the parts of a damselfy sharp simultaneously. (Dragonflies, with their outstretched wings, are even harder.) This damselfly obliged me, however, and seems to have been overly obliging to the parasites as well. You know what they say: If you can’t beat ’em, you mite as well join ’em.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2015 at 7:47 AM

  8. With your experience of chiggers attaching to you, Steve, you will have some understanding of the damselfly’s discomfort.


    September 6, 2015 at 9:00 AM

    • That’s a good comparison. something I hadn’t ever thought about. I wonder how the damselfly experiences the mites: does it even know they’re there, and if so, do they cause itching or pain? A tick, for example, exudes chemicals that keep a person from feeling that the tick is there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 6, 2015 at 9:48 AM

      • Bee mites, bird mites, scabies mites, mange mites, all seem to affect the host to different degrees. Maybe the water mite is reasonably gentle to the damselfly. After all it doesn’t want to kill its food source and its transportation.


        September 7, 2015 at 5:43 AM

        • You raise a good point about the mites’ self-interest.

          I’ve wondered how the mites get on the damselfly. I’ve assumed it happens when the insect is resting for a relatively long time, perhaps overnight.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 7, 2015 at 6:13 AM

  9. Sé por experiencia la dificultad que tiene fotografiar las libélulas. Felicitaciones por esta excelente imagen.

    Isabel F. Bernaldo de Quirós

    September 8, 2015 at 4:58 AM

    • Gracias, Isabel. En este caso voy a felicitar también a mí mismo (¡qué orgullo!), porque sí es difícil enfocar simultáneamente en todas las partes de una libélula.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 8, 2015 at 5:16 AM

  10. […] Today’s photograph, like yesterday’s, is from the same July 23rd outing along Muir Lake Trail in Cedar Park that brought you the recent picture of a damselfly with hangers-on. […]

  11. Excellent!


    September 23, 2015 at 9:50 AM

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