A brutal encounter sets the wind among the willows.
by Ken Burnett
Jonathan Swift once said ‘Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.’ I like this story because it allows me to show the potential for observation in everyday things. It comes from my book The Field by the River and was originally titled The rape of the banded demoiselle. Early one July I saw this extraordinary encounter and I wrote it down on the spot. Afterwards, as I read about these delicate insects and their habits, I found all other accounts without exception were sterile and restrained by comparison. Perhaps in describing this as rape I’m over-anthropomorphising the actions of the male demoiselles. Such encounters may indeed just be normal. But I merely report what I saw and how it struck me at the time.
Sex in the world of insects is often rough, frequently not consensual. The damselfly is a favourite insect for me, and particularly among that grouping, I like the banded demoiselle.
The female of the species is slight, delicate, almost transparent; she has none of the bright, gaudy displays of her larger mate, being coloured a dull green with translucent wings, making her hard to spot. But the male of the species knows what he’s looking for and can spot her easily.
He is larger, stronger and much more brightly coloured. The one I observed was a brilliant shimmering blue with darker blue markings across his four splendid wings. His body is thicker than hers and longer too, powerful, pliable and very strong.
Watching insects have sex is a strange pastime. The thing about Peeping Toms is they should aspire not to be seen, but I can hardly avoid it. And Peeping Tom seems a strange name to give a chap when his leering visage must seem to the two sweaty beasts shagging about four inches away to loom like Jupiter seen from its moons, occupying at least a third of their available sky.
There are numerous damselflies and other winged travellers around at the water’s edge now. The female I’ve spotted has also attracted the attentions of a group of idly hovering males. Though all seem interested, one is more attentive and persistent than the rest.
Congress can only commence when the male has trapped the female, often after a tiring chase. The chase begins at a dizzying pace with twists, turns and pirouettes up, down and sideways around the plant strewn riverbank above and across the rocks at the water’s edge. But there’s only one possible end as the male traps the female on the ground, asserting his mastery by fixing his abdomen firmly around the back of her neck. No female can resist the power of that grip. This is about control, domination and subjugation. The male then grasps and mounts his paramour and there’s nothing gentle or discreet about what he does, from here on it’s rough full-on sex, no pretence at otherwise.
After flying in tandem for a while the pair adopt what’s called the wheel position, where he holds her firmly by the neck, forcing her onto his secondary genitals. Dragonflies and damselflies are unique in that males have two sets of genitals. To fertilise his mate the male must first pass a sperm packet from his primary genitals, located at the end of his abdomen, to the secondary genitals at the top of his abdomen, just above the chest. These have hook-like grippers attached, designed for holding her firmly. Here he has to attach her genitals – just one set she has, at the end of her abdomen, which is now curled up and held against his chest, ready for the deed.
Penetration is rough and determined. In some damselfly males the tip of the whiplike penis is equipped with spines for scouring out the genital tract of the female, to remove the sperm of any other males. So, no gentle foreplay here. Of course it occurs to me that despite the apparent brutality the female demoiselle, while not actually enjoying it, might at least be OK. Given her contortions I conclude that this is unlikely. The female is bent over backwards and upside down, pinned down and forced to offer herself to her assailant.
From time to time throughout their vigorous coupling the male appears to pause to mop his brow, brushing his antennae with a loose forearm. The female stays trapped beneath, inverted and held in a vicelike grip while the male thrusts deeply, vigorously, rhythmically, urgently and with scant regard for his subservient partner.
At last the satiated male releases his grip and his victim is set free. It seems to take her some time to recover, while he saunters off to a nearby leaf where he sits, nay reclines, basking in the sunlight, seemingly more than a little pleased with himself – the boy done good.
Having painfully straightened her bruised and sore abdomen, she is having trouble getting her wings to work. The right wings have been bent sideways. For a while it looks like she might be unable to fly. Having forgotten the encounter already the male now moves off, in the insect equivalent of a post-coital fag, to lounge on a nearby leaf. But two more likely lads hove in view and quickly spot the weakened and disabled female, dishevelled but obviously still at least a bit alluring and fair game to her opposite sex. Eagerly they swoop and a second desperate chase begins among the ferns, with again only one possible outcome. A second rape appears inevitable and it’s unlikely to be more considerate of the female than was the first.
Of course there’s nothing to suggest that the apparent abuse I witnessed was her first or even second coupling that morning. The male who inseminates her just before she lays her eggs will be the one who gets to spread his genes. She, poor creature, has no option other than to submit to him and all others before him.
Such is the lot of the female banded demoiselle. Tempting though it is to intervene, I’ll resist and leave the banded demoiselles to their own devices, which inevitably means to the less than tender care of their males.