Banner image: Martin Green

If you’re exploring our Wetlands Nature Reserve on a warm, sunny day this summer, you’re likely to encounter some of the jewels of the insect world: dragonflies and damselflies. These vivid insects come in a dazzling array of colours from brilliant reds to metallic blues and iridescent greens. It’s worth bringing along a pair of binoculars if you’d like to look at them closely as they’re prone to darting off if they sense nearby movement, so it is often better to view them from afar.

So how do you tell the difference between the two?

As a general rule, dragonflies are broader and stockier than their smaller, more delicate cousins. A dragonfly in flight brings to mind a harrier jumpjet – it is agile, strong and purposeful. Dragonflies have four independently mobile wings which give them a supreme manoeuvrability, enabling them to hover, as well as move swiftly upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards just like the famous aircraft.

Damselflies, on the other hand, have a much more gentle, fluttery flight, more akin to a butterfly than a fighter plane. While resting, damsels fold their wings neatly next to their bodies, while dragons’ wings are outstretched.

The dragonfly is an aggressive airborne predator. Using its acute eyesight and efficient aerial skills, it hunts a variety of insects, capturing them mid-air. And despite their delicate appearance, damselflies are also voracious predators, snatching other insects by creating a ‘basket’ shape with their legs to scoop up their prey while in flight.

These hunting techniques have been perfected over millions of years – their ancestral line dates back to around 300 million years ago – before dinosaurs roamed the earth! Back then, they were much bigger than they are today, with a wingspan up to 30cm.

Martin Rodgers

Although dragonflies and damselflies are best known as flying insects, they actually spend the majority of their lives underwater. The adult, flying stage of their lives usually only lasts for a few weeks, during which time their primary purpose is to mate and produce the next generation.

Dragons and damsels start their lives as tiny eggs, which are laid underwater, sometimes within plants, by the female. The larvae, or nymph, hatches after around a week and is a ferocious underwater predator, with an extendable hinged jaw which it uses to eat other aquatic insects.

As it grows, it sheds its skin several times, and when it is ready to change into an adult – usually after between six months and a few years depending on the species - it leaves the water, and crawls up a plant stem. The transformation that happens now is pretty astounding – the skin along the nymph’s body actually splits open and the new adult insect emerges from the old skin!

The wings at this stage are crumpled and soft so the insect pumps fluid into its veins to stretch them out. Over the next few days, the body will elongate and the wings will harden until the adult is ready to take flight. During this period of transformation, the emerging adult is at its most vulnerable to predators.

A keen observer may sometimes spot the empty skins of nymphs on plants around the water’s edge, and on a still, sunny day there’s an excellent chance of seeing a dragonfly cruising along the water or a damsel fluttering among the bankside vegetation at the Wetlands Nature Reserve.

Martin Green

A total of 11 species of dragonfly and eight damselfly species have been recorded at the park in recent years.

A few to look out for are:

  • Brown hawker – Easily recognised, this large dragonfly has a slender brown body, with bright yellow stripes on the sides of the thorax and golden-brown wings.
  • Emperor dragonfly – Britain’s largest dragonfly, this majestic species has a bright blue/green body and large eyes. You’ll most likely see this active hunter in flight as it rarely settles.
  • Banded demoiselle – this stunning damselfly is often seen fluttering near to vegetation at the water’s edge. Males are a vivid metallic blue with a distinctive black band on their wings, while females are a vivid green.
  • Common blue damselfly – a common species which can be seen in a variety of habitats, from open water to woodland. The males are bright blue with bands of black along the body, while females are a paler blue or green.

Don’t forget to let us know if you see any dragons or damsels while you’re out exploring – we’d love to hear about your sightings!

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