A hidden world of dragonflies and damselflies

An eastern amberwing dragonfly.

By Jeanne Church

I have been eagerly awaiting the return of the dragonflies and damselflies. They are surprisingly beautiful, endlessly fascinating, and yet largely unfamiliar to most of us.

To the casual observer, dragonflies and damselflies, collectively known as Odonata, probably look the same. Both have six legs, a head and an abdomen; both have two pairs of transparent wings, bulgy eyes and stick-like bodies. But there are a couple of features that will help you to easily differentiate the two: body shape and wing position.

Dragonflies have bodies that are much thicker and bulkier than damselflies and because of their heftier size, it’s more likely that you’ll notice a dragonfly long before you’ll ever see the tiny, delicate-looking damselflies.

When dragonflies are at rest, they hold their wings perpendicular to their bodies like an airplane. Damselflies, on the other hand, fold their wings up and hold them together across the top of their backs. Knowing these two features alone will make you an expert!

Before I started taking pictures of dragonflies and damselflies, I had no idea that there were so many different kinds, that they came in such a wide variety of colors, or that they have been here for over 300 million years!

Worldwide, there are well over 5,000 species of dragonflies and damselflies, with the dragons being more common than the damsels. Both are found on every continent except Antarctica.

If you take a closer look at the bodies of these beautiful insects, you’ll find a surprising assortment of colors including, red, white, blue, green, yellow, orange, black, brown and purple! When you take a closer look at their history, you’ll find that the earliest dragonflies had wingspans of over two feet!

Dragonflies and damselflies are not just amazing little insects to admire and photograph, they are also highly beneficial to have around. Nearly every minute of their day is spent devouring the insects that are most annoying to us – like mosquitoes and flies! One dragonfly alone can eat hundreds of mosquitoes a day!

If dragonflies and damselflies are eating all the smaller insects, who eats all the dragonflies and damselflies? Apparently, everything else! Before dragonflies and damselflies even emerge from their aquatic larval stage, they are being gobbled up by ducks, frogs, toads, newts, fish, and even bigger dragonfly larvae. When they finally emerge from the water and become airborne adults, dragons and damsels have even more predators. Birds are particularly fond of them, especially the more acrobatic fliers like flycatchers, swallows, kingfishers, falcons, and kites. Odonata are also a favorite snack for spiders, praying mantis, robber flies, fish, frogs, bees, bats, other dragonflies – as well as the carnivorous sundew plant.

Because I have been waiting so patiently for the dragonflies and damselflies to return, I started wondering, “Where will they be returning from?” Do they migrate? Do they hibernate? Where do they go during our long, cold Michigan winters?

Part of the answer lies in the life cycle of dragonflies. They lay their eggs in the water throughout the summer where they will hatch and grow into nymphs. Some of those nymphs will remain in the water over the winter and then emerge as adults the following summer. Some will remain in the water for years! A few dragonfly species in North America actually migrate. One of those migrants, the green darner, travels nearly a thousand miles on its two-inch wings, fluttering from Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

During the month of May, I have spotted only the occasional dragonfly or damselfly but soon they will be abundant. Hopefully, I’ll find at least one that I’ve never seen before!


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