On Catching Dragonflies and Softballs

I never had a job when I was in high school, but I didn’t fritter away my summers in a sea of laziness either.  One summer I worked as a volunteer for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and I think that experience started me down the road toward a life of working with children and teaching about the natural world.  After that I spent three summers volunteering 30 hours a week for the Red Cross.  I also played softball each summer and prepped my 4-H projects for the fair.  A typical day for me involved 6 hours of volunteering, a couple of hours of softball practice or a game, and then a whole evening of pinning and identifying insects or making cakes or sewing something for 4-H.  I was so busy I barely ate and barely slept, but I absolutely loved it!  I was doing something good for the world, playing a sport I loved with teammates I adored, and spending hours playing with insects or frosting.  It was fantastic!

On weekends, my dad would drive me to insect collecting sites.  One of my favorite places to collect was Palmer Lake in Palmer Lake, Colorado and the two of us went often.  The lake was the perfect place for collecting dragonflies and I fell absolutely in love with them there.  The banks were lined with a thin layer of cattails, but little sections were left bare so that fishermen could cast their lines from shore.  I would stand in one of those gaps, my little homemade bug net propped up on my shoulder, and watch the dragonflies flying back and forth several times.  Once I had the flight pattern down, I would swing the net out at the precise moment that the dragonfly flew by.  With this technique I was able to capture about 95% of the dragonflies I sought, and I was often the only person in 4-H that had dragonflies in my collection.

There was one problem though.  I played softball at the same time I was collecting insects.  I spent several days a week at softball practice or playing games.  I was the catcher, so I developed some pretty hefty upper arm muscles.  I batted a lot.  Then I spent my weekends at the lake with a net in my hand that just happened to be about the same length as my softball bat…  Because I was developing my insect collecting skills at the same time that I was playing softball, I found myself holding nets like a softball bat, two-handed with my hands choked up on the handle for control.  When I swung my net, I swung it HARD, just like my softball bat.

My technique was great for getting fast flying insects into my net and I credit my capture success to the power behind that net.  However, that power wasn’t always a good thing.  If I accidentally hit the bug with the net’s wire frame…   Well, it wasn’t pretty.  Body parts would go flying off.  I ended up with several headless dragonflies and I felt absolutely terrible every time because I hate taking an insect’s life for nothing.  The worst part was I could feel it when I hit the bug with the frame.  I had a very high capture rate, but it came at a cost: not all of my specimens were worthy of adding to my collection by the time I got them into the jar and it always made me a little sad to have to throw a dragonfly away.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I started collecting insects, but I still swing my net hard.  I have to pay very close attention to my surroundings when I have a net in my hand because I’m pretty sure I could really injure someone if I hit them.  When I’m around other people I often switch to a one-handed netting technique.  It lacks the precise control of the two-handed method and my capture rate of flying insects is much lower, but the power behind the swing is strongly diminished and a lot less hazardous to my companions.  It’s worth it to come home with fewer bugs if it means I’m not giving my friends black eyes or deep bruises.  I hit many fewer insects with the net frame too.  I consider that a good thing.  Still, if I am going after something important, I revert right back to that softball swing.  I haven’t even played softball since college (my knees can’t take it anymore), but I trained myself to use my net that way and old habits are really hard to break.

These days I spend more time collecting insects with my camera than I do with my net, but I don’t think I’m ever going to rid myself of that net technique I developed as a kid.  Honestly, I’m not sure I want to.  Dragonflies are very hard to catch, especially the ones that don’t perch often, so a fast swing is really useful for collecting them.  I might have to be extra careful when other people are around when I collect and every now and then someone will tease me for how hard I swing, but it works.  Sometimes the people who give me a hard time for swinging my net so hard are the very same people who ask how I catch so many dragonflies.  It’s all because of that softball swing.  And now, every time I collect, I think back to those great summers in high school, all those days of spending doing nothing but the things I love, and enjoying every minute of it.  That was a great time in my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything.


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