The wonders of the aerial Odonata!
It is amazing how wonderful water is for wildlife. Take a trip to the seaside and you’re sure to see some gulls. Visit a park with a pond and you’ll no doubt see some ducks. Where there is water, there certainly is life!  And watching dragonflies dart among the plants on a riverbank or at the edge of a wildlife pond is one of the joys of Summer. 

Dragonflies and their close relatives, damselflies, known collectively as Odonata meaning “toothed jaw”, are beautiful and highly predatory insects that are mainly found in freshwater wetland areas. As larvae, they live underwater (some dragonflies for as long as 7 years), emerging as winged adults in Spring and Summer. And a warm sunny July day is perfect for observing these prehistoric looking insects. If you are lucky you may spot a larva crawling out of the water up a stem of vegetation. Here its skin splits along the back and the adult insect emerges, a lengthy procedure leaving behind the outer carapace attached to stems and leaves, before unfurling and allowing its wings to spread and stiffen. And then comes its maiden flight!

(Photo: Beautiful demoiselle)

So how do you tell the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly? Well, dragonflies are generally larger, more robust with bigger bodies and when resting they hold their unequal wings at right angles to their body, unlike the damselflies whose equally sized wings are pressed along the body. If you manage to have close look you will see that dragonfly eyes are set close together whereas damselflies have their eyes spaced apart. And flight patterns are different too, with damselflies having a more fluttering flight than the speedy and purposeful dragonfly. You will also notice if you stop and look that many species of Odonata are creatures of habit, either perching in the same place repeatedly or hovering in a similar location.

(Photo: Emperor dragonfly)
Adult Odonata spend much of their active time hunting for other flying insects, capturing their food mid-air using long hair-lined forelegs to “net” their prey. Once mature (this takes a few days after emerging) they also spend a lot of time in courtship and mating, and if you have a pond in your garden you will notice damselflies linked together with the female inserting her eggs onto vegetation just under the surface of the water using her female organ or “ovipositor”.

It is encouraging that Odonata species are faring well in the UK benefitting from both climate change and less pollution of our waterways. And you can do your bit by installing a wildlife pond (no fish!) in your garden. Once established it will soon be attracting damselflies and dragonflies along with all manner of other water creatures!    

(Photo: mating Azure damselflies with female ovipositing)
Kathy Farrell, July 2021

Photos by Martin Farrell
Follow us on Social Media
Protecting wildlife for the future
Keynsham Group
Avon Wildlife Trust
Registered charity 280422