pond insects

Dragonflies & Damselflies

One of my favorite places to go for quiet time is to our small farm pond. The fish swim by. Turtles poke up curious heads and then dive in an explosion of bubbles. The water surface is disturbed by the occasional travels of a harmless brown water snake. Around the pond banks, dragonflies and damselflies flit by, stopping to rest on the reeds growing along the water’s edge. Their membrane wings are transparent in the sunlight.

How do you tell a dragonfly from a damselfly? Both are found in fresh-water habitats across the US and the temperate world. Both belong to the order Odonata.  Like other insects, they have two antennae, a hard exoskeleton and six legs. Both dragonflies and damselflies have two sets of wings, but the damselfly wings are the same length, while the forward set of dragonfly wings are shorter than the rear set. Damselfly wings narrow where they are attached to the body, while dragonfly wings have a consistent width. Dragonflies rest with their wings stretched out flat like an airplane, while damselflies rest with their wings erect, like a butterfly. Those wings are not attached to each other, so they can fly forward, backward or hover with ease. Damselflies have narrow bodies, while dragonflies are thicker. If you could get close enough to see their eyes, you would note that dragonfly heads are almost entirely made up of their huge sets of eyes, while damselflies have smaller eyes with a gap between them.  Damselflies are usually smaller overall than dragonflies.

Dragon and damsel babies (nyads) and adults eat other insects like gnats, house flies and mosquitos, which makes them Good Guys in my book. Females deposit their eggs in water. If you watch carefully, you may see a female hover over the water’s surface, dipping her tail down as she drops a single egg (“ovipositing”). The nyads are wingless and spend their lifespan in the water, where they consume tiny aquatic life such as mosquito larvae. It takes about eleven months for dragonflies to go from egg to adult.

Weird common names for these insects include “horse stingers,” “mosquito hawks,” “devil’s darning needles,” and my favorite, “snake doctors.” It is not uncommon for them to land on a person who is sitting still in their habitat, but there is no need to shoo them away. Despite those impressive looking tails, neither the dragonfly nor the damselfly have stingers but both have the ability to give you a bite if you catch one and it feels threatened. You would think that this biting ability would be their defense mechanism, but instead they “play dead” and float downstream away from their predators. They can also shoot water through their bodies in a hard stream to rapidly propel themselves away from danger. If a predator rips off a leg, they regrow it.

Dragons and damsels come in many different colors. The ones at the Mary Snoddy pond are mostly an iridescent blue, but they can also be green, purple, gold, red, black or white. I tried to capture a good photo to share with you, but their flying speeds (up to 20mph) coupled with my limited photography skills produced only blurs, so the photo for today’s post is a grass growing pond-side, a popular resting place for my dragonflies.

Pondside grasses.jpg