Everyone knows what dragonflies look like: iridescent black wings and gemstone bodies that whiz through the air, sparkling in the light. They resemble flying jewelry more than insects. But not every dragonfly is a dragonfly. These creatures have lesser-known relatives every bit as spectacular. They’re called damselflies.
Like dragonflies, damselflies live near freshwater streams, ponds, lakes, and marshes, appearing in high summer. They are one of nature’s most beautiful beneficial insects, and a treat to see in the garden. They are also regularly mistaken for their better-known cousins.
Both damselflies and dragonflies are in the order Odonata, but there the family tree splits. Between them there are over 5000 species. Some of our oldest insects, they have been around for 325 million years, before the dinosaurs. The earliest damselflies were the size of hawks.
Damselflies are found in all 50 states and on every continent except Antarctica. Wings can be clear, clear with black veins, or solid black, and their bodies can be red, blue, green, black, yellow or brown. Some species change color with light or temperature.
Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to tell the difference between dragonflies and damselflies. Dragonflies are larger, with thicker bodies; damselflies are slender and twig-like. They flutter like butterflies while dragonflies tend to zoom, flying fast and straight. When perching, most damselfly species close their wings; dragonfly wings stay open. Both have huge compound eyes. A dragonfly’s eyes meet in the middle, while a damselfly’s eyes are separate.
Don’t believe what playmates might have told you as a child. Although they share the nickname devil’s darning needle, both damselflies and dragonflies are harmless to humans. They won’t, as childhood lore goes, “sew you up.” And neither insect stings or bites animals or people.
Indiscriminate carnivores both as nymphs and adults, damselflies eat mosquitoes and flies, but also moths, caterpillars, and other damsels. Their bristly arms are curved so adult damselflies can “scoop” prey out of the air and eat it on the fly.
Males are more colorful than females, which tend to be gray or brown. Males perform elaborate maneuvers to catch a female’s eye. They often mate in mid air, and immediately afterward the female seeks out plants in or near fresh water to lay her eggs.
Eggs hatch in one to three weeks, and depending on the species, nymphs stay in the water for a couple of months to up to three years, eating mosquito larva, water fleas, and other aquatic insects. They molt over a dozen times before climbing out of the water and bursting out of their final skin as a fully winged adult. As adults, life span ranges from weeks to months.
Many larger creatures eat damselflies, including birds, frogs, lizards, spiders and fish. Their greater enemies are habitat destruction, pollution, pesticide use and climate change. Like dragonflies, scientists consider damselflies a bioindicator – their populations and overall health indicate the health of a waterway. If the water is clean, with good oxygen levels, there will be damselflies. Responsible lawn and garden practices, such as avoiding chemical use and curbing runoff, will help keep these flying jewels in our gardens.
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