Damselfly Insects – Are Damselflies And Dragonflies The Same Thing
By: Mary Ellen Ellis
Gardeners can hardly avoid insects, and while you may view most of them as pests, many are either beneficial or just fun to watch and enjoy. Damselflies and dragonflies fall into the latter categories, and you are especially likely to see them if you have water features in your garden. Read on to learn more about damselfly vs. dragonfly insects.
What are Damselflies?
Most people know a dragonfly when they see one, but did you know that you may also be looking at a damselfly. Damselfly insects belong to the Odonata order of winged insects. Damselfly species are diverse in appearance, but they all have a few characteristics in common:
- A large space between their eyes
- Wings that are shorter than the abdomen
- A very skinny body
- A simple, fluttering style of flying
Damselfly in gardens is a good sign, as these flying hunters will eat smaller pest insects, including a lot of mosquitoes. They are also known for their spectacular colors, which are just fun to see. The ebony jewelwing, for instance, has an iridescent, bright green body, and deep black wings.
Are Damselflies and Dragonflies the Same?
These are not the same insects, but they are related. Both belong to the Odonata order, but dragonflies fall into the Anisoptera suborder, while damselflies belong to the Zygoptera suborder. Within these suborders there are more species of dragonfly than damselfly.
When it comes to damselfly vs. dragonfly, the most obvious difference is that dragonflies are bigger and more robust. Damselflies are smaller and appear more delicate. The eyes on the dragonfly are much larger and close together; they have large, broad wings; their bodies are large and muscular; and the flight of the dragonfly is more deliberate and agile. You are likely to see them swooping and dipping through the air as they hunt their prey.
There are other differences between these two types of insects, including behaviors. Damselflies will hunt in cold temperatures, while dragonflies will not, for example. When resting, damselflies fold their wings in, over their bodies, while dragonflies leave their wings outspread.
If you’re lucky, you’ll observe both damselflies and dragonflies in your garden. An abundance of these insects is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. They are also fun to watch and will help you control pest insects.
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Article: Dragonflies: Dinosaurs of the Garden
Dragonflies arrived in the garden more than 300 million years ago-a mere 70 million years before the earliest known dinosaur. With expert hunting skills (they are insect eating machines) and the ability to fly at speeds over 30 mph, it's not surprising that their species have been able to achieve such longevity. Dragonflies live, breed, and eat around water.
Photo by Gerald Romanchuk
Fun Facts About Dragonflies
There are an estimated 49 different species of dragonflies found in Alberta.
Dragonflies are paleopterous [pronounced pay-lee-opp-tur-us], which means they cannot fold their wings back across their abdomen.
Dragonflies are predators. They eat mosquitoes, bees, gnats, and other flying insects, and can catch them in midair.
Dragonflies have massive eyes, that pretty much make up their entire head. They can almost see 360 degrees around their body, with such large and specialized eyes.
Dragonflies lay their eggs in water, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae will live underwater until they develop into the adult phase of the life cycle.
There is evidence that there were once massive dragonfly-like creatures that roamed the earth. These insects were thought to be the size of modern birds, with a wingspan of 75 centimetres. These massive dragonflies were named Meganeuropsis, and fossils show many similarities with members of today’s Odonata family.
What do Dragonflies look like?
Neither dragons nor flies, dragonflies are insects with more than 320 species known to live in Australia.
Dragonflies have a wide body with 2 pairs of wings. When they rest, their wings lie flat just like when they are in flight as they cannot fold them over their bodies.
Dragonflies can be up to 15 centimetres in length. Different species have distinctive markings and colours, so with practice, you’ll be able to recognise one type from another, just like birds.
Where are Dragonflies found?
Dragonflies are common around Australia wherever there is freshwater such as a pond, stream, river or lake. Different species emerge at different times of year, so keep a look out no matter what month it is.
- Dragonflies have been around on earth for around 300 million years. At the time of the dinosaurs, their wingspan would have measured a scary 70 centimetres.
- The breeding season for Dragonflies lasts up to three weeks, and many species flaunt bright colours on their wings and bodies to attract a mate. Males may even become territorial and will defend their turf against any rival that tries to upstage him.
Dragonflies – the full story
Neither dragons nor flies, dragonflies are insects with more than 320 species known to live in Australia. Different species of dragonflies also have distinctive markings and colours, so with practice, you’ll be able to recognise one type from another, just like birds. Different species emerge at different times of year, so keep a look out no matter what month it is.
Dragonflies have a wide body with 2 pairs of wings. When they are resting they will hold their wings straight out from their body. They can be up to 15 centimetres in length.
They are common around Australia, especially in Queensland. Watch out for dragonflies wherever there is freshwater such as a pond, stream, river or lake. Dragonflies are happy to hang around your backyard provided you have a permanent water supply, such as a pond that contains food that the dragonfly nymphs can live on.
Dragonflies chase and catch other insects in acrobatic displays. When they rest, their wings lie flat just like when they are in flight as they cannot fold them over their bodies.
Dragonflies can catch their prey in mid-flight by forming a basket with their spiny front and middle legs. They are expert fliers, with the ability to hover, and fly backwards and forwards, and have excellent vision, with two large eyes and three small eyes. Dragonflies are superb fliers but have another secret making them one of the best predators in your backyard. They have mastered the art of camouflaging themselves while flying.
The dragonfly manages motion camouflage by adjusting its position to always occupy the same spot in its prey’s retina. They can track other insects with incredibly intricate manoeuvring that makes them appear motionless to their target. They achieve this by using a system even more sophisticated than the radar-avoiding technology of aircraft.
Dragonflies are great to have around your garden as they are insect eating machines. Dragonflies and dragonfly larvae particularly love to eat mosquitoes. Adult dragonflies also eat White Cabbage butterflies and other flying insects, which they grab in mid-air.
Outdoor bug zappers are more likely to zap dragonflies than mosquitoes, and dragonflies will keep your mosquito numbers down for you – no need for a zapper when you have dragonfly buddies.
The breeding season for Dragonflies lasts up to three weeks, and many species flaunt bright colours on their wings and bodies to attract a mate. Males may even become territorial and will defend their turf against any rival that tries to upstage him.
Once he has attracted a female, the male will grasp her behind the head. If you are lucky, you may see them flying by in their embrace or see them land on a perch to mate.
The female will lay its eggs into, or close to, water. The larvae hatch and live an aquatic life, feeding on other insects, tadpoles and occasionally fish. After developing through twelve stages, the larvae finally crawl out of the water. They split their skin and an adult Dragonfly is born.
Several Dragonfly species, such as the Giant Dragonfly, are endangered because the larvae rely on clean water and on specific water temperatures and oxygen levels to survive.
On the east coast of New South Wales and south-east Queensland, Giant Dragonflies (Petalura gigantea) start emerging from October and November right up until January. Giant Dragonflies have a wingspan of up to 13 cm.
If you want to attract dragonflies to your backyard, establish a pond. Take a big bottleful of water from an older pond and tip it into a new one to introduce aquatic insects. It’s best to give them their own pond – pond fish will eat dragonfly larvae swimming underwater.
Dragonflies are solar powered. As cold blooded insects, they need to absorb the warmth of the sun before they can be really active. Place some light-coloured rocks around your garden pond for dragonflies to sun themselves on, and make sure that it is not more than 30% covered by shade.
Did you know?
Dragonflies have been around on earth for around 300 million years. At the time of the dinosaurs, their wingspan would have measured a scary 70 centimetres. Today, they reach from a tiny 15 mm to 13 centimetres such as the endangered Giant Dragonfly.
The difference between a Dragonfly and its cousin the Damselfly is that the damsel is much more delicate and keeps its wings close along its body when resting.
Dragonflies don’t rely on specific host plants to nourish their young the way butterflies do, although some species do use water plants as nurseries. They insert their eggs into the soft stems.
Plant aquatic plants in your pond, and border plants that are semi-submerged so that dragonfly larvae can pull themselves out of the water.
You can help your Dragonflies by keeping their water clean. Avoid using chemicals or pesticides that might run off into a local creek or change the water quality of your pond.
Garden ponds come in all shapes and sizes and can be made in a great variety of ways. Large or small, your pond can support dragonflies. Having a dragonfly pond in your garden will open up a world of fascination and magic which you never knew existed! You will be able to peer into the watery depths to catch a glimpse of the larval dragonfly hunting its prey. You can witness up close the incredible phenomenon of dragonfly emergence, when the adult bursts from the larval skin. And through summer, you can watch males displaying and taking part in territorial fights, while also quietly observing the female dragonfly’s secretive egg-laying behaviour.
Use our selection of pond management leaflets to help keep your pond in tip top shape for dragonflies.
Southern Hawker emerging. Image by Jill Bailey