Damselfly: All You Need to Know – Your Essential Guide

Damselflies are fascinating insects that spend their lives in two different environments: aquatic as juveniles and aerial as adults. Belonging to the order Odonata, these delicate creatures can often be spotted around ponds, streams, and other bodies of water where their larvae, known as nymphs, thrive.

Nymphs are slim, drab insects with six thin legs, large eyes, and small wing buds on their thorax. Unique to damselflies, the nymphs have three leaf-like gills at the tip of the abdomen, which distinguishes them from dragonfly larvae that have their gills hidden inside the abdomen.

Adult damselflies are known for their slim, elongated abdomens and two pairs of membranous wings that are typically held together over the body. With a variety of patterns and colors adorning their delicate bodies, these insects showcase a striking display while gracefully darting through the air, capturing small insects as their prey.

Damselfly vs Dragonfly

Physical Differences

  • Damselflies:
    • Smaller (1-2 inches), delicate appearance, various colors
    • Wings held together above the body when at rest
    • Slender body with mostly similar length segments
    • Large eyes separated on each side of the head
  • Dragonflies:
    • Larger, sturdier appearance
    • Wings spread out when at rest
    • Stockier body with varied length segments
    • Large eyes close together or touching

Both damselflies and dragonflies belong to the Odonata order, but damselflies are part of the Zygoptera suborder.

Behavioral Differences

  • Damselflies:
    • Females lay eggs on aquatic vegetation or in water
    • Prey on mosquitoes, midges, and other flies
    • Bouncy flight pattern, often found near slower water sources
  • Dragonflies:
    • Females lay eggs in water or on nearby plants
    • Prey on various insects, sometimes even other dragonflies
    • Stronger, faster flight pattern, often found near faster water sources
Comparison Damselfly Dragonfly
Size smaller, delicate (1-2 inches) larger, sturdier
Wings position held together above body at rest spread out at rest
Eyes position large eyes separated on each side of the head large eyes close together/touching
Prey mosquitoes, midges, other flies various insects, even other dragonflies
Flight pattern bouncy, near slower water sources stronger, faster, near faster water
Egg laying on aquatic vegetation or in water in water or on nearby plants

Essentially, damselflies and dragonflies have similarities, but they differ in size, appearance, behavior, and habitat preferences.

Anatomy and Appearance

Body Structure

Damselflies are known for their slender body structure and delicate appearance. They have three main body parts:

  • Head: Large eyes, short antennae
  • Thorax: Six thin legs, small wing buds
  • Abdomen: Long and narrow, with three gills at the tip

Males and females can have slightly different body structures, depending on the species. For example, some male damselflies have claspers at the end of their abdomen for mating.

Wings and Flight

Adult damselflies have two pairs of wings, which allow them to maneuver through the air with agility. Their wings are:

  • Long and slender: Unlike dragonflies, damselfly wings are narrow and generally the same width along their entire length
  • Positioned together: When at rest, damselflies hold their wings parallel to their body, unlike dragonflies which hold their wings perpendicular to their body

Due to their light body structure, damselflies can be carried by air currents and occasionally hover in one place.

Coloration and Markings

Damselflies come in a variety of colors and markings, ranging from drab to vibrant. They can have:

  • Bold colors: Some species have striking hues, especially males who may use bright colors to attract females
  • Cryptic markings: Camouflage patterns to blend in with their surroundings

In some species, coloration may change with age or environmental factors.

Feature Damselfly Dragonfly
Body Shape Slender Robust
Wings Narrow Broad
Wing Position Folded together Perpendicular

Life Cycle and Behavior

Mating and Breeding

Damselflies are insects that have a fascinating life cycle, involving distinct stages. Mating begins with the male pursuing the female, which he identifies by her specific wing color and markings. In some species, males exhibit territorial behavior to protect their chosen females from other competing males. A common example is the male common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum).

Eggs and Larvae

After mating, the female deposits her eggs on aquatic plants or directly into water bodies such as ponds and streams. Once the eggs hatch, the emerging larvae (also known as damselfly nymphs) spend much of their time submerged in water, where they feed on smaller insects and avoid predators like frogs and birds. Key features of damselfly nymphs include:

  • Elongated bodies
  • Distinct wing pads
  • Three feathery gills at the end of the abdomen

Metamorphosis and Adult Life

The process of metamorphosis transforms damselfly nymphs into adult damselflies. This life stage transition comprises the following:

  1. Nymph stage: The larvae undergo several molts in aquatic environments as they grow and develop.
  2. Emergence: Larvae crawl onto plants or other structures when they are ready to transition into adults.
  3. Final molt: The nymph’s exoskeleton splits open, revealing the teneral (immature) adult damselfly, which then takes to the air.

Adult damselflies have distinct flying and resting styles: while they fly with a seemingly weak flutter, they often perch with their wings folded together above their bodies. Despite their delicate appearance, adult damselflies are skilled predators, capturing and consuming insects on the wing. They typically live near ponds and streams where they can easily lay eggs and continue the life cycle.

Feeding Habits and Predators

Prey and Hunting Techniques

Damselflies, belonging to the order Odonata, are known for their robust appetite and hunting abilities. Both larvae and adult damselflies have diverse menus, which typically include:

  • Mosquitoes
  • Aquatic insects
  • Crustaceans
  • Flying insects

Damselflies primarily hunt in water during their larval stage. As predators, they are stealthy and patient, waiting for the perfect moment to ambush their prey. Here are some of their hunting techniques:

  • Rapid acceleration
  • Capture prey mid-flight (adults)
  • Ambush from aquatic vegetation (larvae)

Example: An adult damselfly swooping down to snatch a flying mosquito.

Common Predators of Damselflies

Unfortunately, damselflies also have their share of predators. Some common ones include:

  • Fish (e.g., trout)
  • Birds
  • Larger insects
Predator Primary Target Hunting Strategy
Fish (trout) Larvae Ambushing near surface
Birds Adults Capture during flight
Larger insects Adults Attack while perching

Protecting themselves from these predators, damselflies often seek refuge in or near aquatic vegetation and use their agility to escape from threats. In turn, the predators hunt damselflies as part of their balanced diet in their aquatic habitats.

Habitats and Distribution

Types of Water Bodies

Damselflies are commonly found around various types of water bodies. Some examples include:

  • Streams: Fast-flowing, with clean and clear water where these insects lay their eggs.
  • Ponds: Quiet and still water, providing ideal conditions for damselflies to thrive.
  • Lakes: Larger water bodies, often with a diverse range of aquatic plants that offer shelter and protection.

The presence of aquatic plants and rocks are essential for damselflies, as they rely on these features for laying their eggs, protection, and hunting for prey.

Geographical Range

Damselflies are found across the world, occupying a wide range of habitats and locations. Some key points to note about their distribution are:

  • Wide distribution: They inhabit all continents except Antarctica.
  • Diverse habitats: They can thrive in a variety of freshwater habitats, including streams, ponds, and lakes.
  • Elevation: Generally found at lower elevations, but some species can also occupy higher altitudes.

Species Diversity

The damselfly family consists of many diverse species, each featuring unique characteristics and habitats. Some important observations include:

  • Varied appearances: Damselflies come in a range of colors, shapes, and sizes.
  • Habitat preferences: Some species prefer specific water bodies, while others are more versatile.
  • Endangered species: The orange-black Hawaiian damselfly is one example of a threatened species due to habitat modification.
Feature Streams Ponds Lakes
Flow of Water Fast-flowing Still, quiet Variable
Aquatic Plant Life Moderate High High
Damselfly Species Specific More diverse Most diverse
Rocks and Shelter Abundant Moderate Variable

In summary, the habitats and distribution of damselflies vary widely among different water bodies, geographical locations, and species. These factors contribute to the diverse and fascinating world of damselflies.

Role in Ecosystem and Conservation

Importance to Aquatic Ecosystems

Damselflies are a crucial component of aquatic ecosystems. They contribute to:

  • Water health: As aquatic insects, damselflies act as an indicator of water quality.
  • Pollination: Adult damselflies feed on nectar and help in pollinating plants.
  • Pest control: They consume harmful pests, aiding in the natural control of aquatic ecosystems.

Threats and Conservation Efforts

Damselflies face various threats, such as:

  • Pollution: Water pollution affects damselflies by reducing their breeding grounds and food sources.
  • Habitat loss: Dams and other human-driven disruptions diminish damselfly habitats.

Conservation efforts include:

  • Policy measures: Governments can limit pollution to protect these delicate swimmers.
  • Education: Raising public awareness can promote conservation efforts and engage communities.

Damselflies play a significant role in aquatic ecosystems, maintaining balance and water quality. By understanding their needs and taking conservation measures, these fascinating insects can thrive and continue to benefit their environment.

Fun Facts and Symbolism

Cultural and Spiritual Significance

  • In many cultures, the damselfly symbolizes change and transformation due to its metamorphosis stages.
  • Ancient traditions associate the damselfly with emotional flexibility and romantic love, as they often dance in pairs.

In Christianity, the damselfly represents hope and renewal, as its appearance in nature signifies the coming of the summer sun.

Interesting Damselfly Trivia

  • The common blue damselfly is one of the most widely found species, known for its vibrant color and delicate appearance.
  • Male damselflies can change their color to better attract a mate, showcasing an interesting aspect of their appearance.

Damselflies can eat small insects such as mosquitofish, which helps maintain the balance of nature in aquatic ecosystems. They can be found in a variety of locations, even as far away as Hawaii.

Aspect Damselfly Dragonfly
Wing Position at Rest Folded on top of the body Held open perpendicular to the body
Flight Speed Slow, hovering flight Fast, agile flight
Size Generally smaller and more delicate Larger and more robust
  • Damselflies are part of the Odonata order, which also includes dragonflies.
  • They enjoy moving and flying in and around different bodies of water, such as streams and ponds.

In conclusion, damselflies are fascinating creatures that hold significant cultural symbolism and interesting trivia. Their unique features and abilities make them a delightful part of nature.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Satyr Butterfly and Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly

 

Various bugs from a trip last year
Hi.
Last year I went on a circle tour of Lake Superior with my father, and stumbled across a handful of insects I didn’t see on your site. The first is a moth that seemed rather camera-shy. It took forever for it to sit still, but I finally got a decent shot of it. Its wingspan was probably a little over two inches, but what really caught my eye were the circular marks on the wings. I believe this one was seen on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, if that helps. The second is a type of dragonfly that was rather common around the bottom of one of the waterfalls we visited in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Perhaps three inches long. The third was also found near a waterfall in the UP of Michigan, but a different one, and not solely at the bottom of the falls either. Again, these were all over the place, and maybe 2 and a half to 3 inches
long. Great site, and I hope you have some luck finding out what these bugs are.
Justin Henry

Satyr Butterfly Ebony Jewelwing


Hi Justin,
We are very happy to get your letter which contains some new species for us. The moth is actually a butterfly in the Family Satyridae which contains the Wood Nymphs and Satyrs. These butterflies are brown or tawny with eyespots. They are found in wooded and open brushy areas. Adults don’t visit flowers for nectar, preferring sap and juices from rotting fruit. Your Dragonflies are actually closely related Damselflies. One we cannot identify, but the other appears to be an Ebony Jewelwing, Calopteryx maculata.

Letter 2 – Sedge Sprite Damselfly and some basic photo tips

 

photo fan
June 10, 2010
Hello fellow bugnuts!
Many of the photos you post are positively breathtaking. Have you ever considering posting a section on hints for those of us with a bug-photo addiction?
Just for fun, I’m including a shot of a male sedge sprite damselfy and a rose chafer doing a “handstand”.
Thanks so much for your wonderful site!
Don D, St. Augusta, MN
Central MN

Sedge Sprite Damselfly

Dear Don,
Thanks for sending your photo of a Sedge Sprite Damselfly, Nehalennia irene.  BugGuide has quite a few nice examples of this Northern species.  We agree that many of the photos that are submitted to our site are gorgeous, including your own.  Since we teach photography, and What’s That Bug? is a nice retreat from the demands of our day job, we try not to critique the images submitted by our readership too severely, but trust us when we tell you that many of the images that cross our path are not pretty pictures.  Advances in digital camera technology make it easy for amateur photographers and insect enthusiasts to take wonderful photographs, though like your own photo, we often take creative license with cropping, and though your image did not require any additional post production manipulation, we also adjust levels in photoshop to both color correct and to improve density.  We also sharpen blurry images, and again, this was not required with your photograph.  Many photographs do not need cropping, but in the interest of maximizing the size of the insect subject while keeping the file at a manageable size for web posting, we crop tightly to the subject.  Since insects cannot be posed very effectively, there is much luck involved with capturing the perfect balance of camera position, perspective of insect, and lighting.  For the most part, soft subdued lighting like the lighting in your Sedge Sprite photo is ideal.  Open shade or overcast days provide the requisite soft lighting.  Carefully focusing the camera is critical, and with the autofocus feature, this generally involved either centering the subject in the frame, or keeping the finger depressed halfway on the shutter button after the autofocus, and then recomposing the photo before completely depressing the shutter button.  Shallow depth of field like that of your photo keeps the subject sharp and in focus while the background is blurry.  This helps to differentiate the subject from the background, and you achieve this shallow depth of field through the selection of a large aperture, generally 5.6 or greater.  The macro feature on some cameras also contributes to the shallow depth of field.  Selecting a faster shutter speed, like 125 or faster, will keep the insect subject sharp by preventing movement of both the subject and the camera.  For identification purposes, we would encourage our readership to keep away from angles that are too creative, and to stick to dorsal views when appropriate, and lateral views, like the one in your Sedge Sprite, when that view is most appropriate for the subject.
P.S.  We will be posting your Scarab image separately, but we are not convinced that it is a Rose Chafer.

Letter 3 – Spreadwing Damselfly

 

spreadwing damselfly
Location: Andover, New Jersey
June 5, 2011 1:22 pm
This is my second spring photographing damselflies and dragonflies. I had never seen this species until this year: a spreadwing damselfly. This is in Kittatinny Valley State Park, which to me is the damselfly and dragonfly center of the world!
Signature: Jean LeBlanc

Spreadwing Damselfly

Hi Jean,
Thanks for sending us your photo.  According to BugGuide, the Spreadwing Damselflies are in the family Lestidae.

Letter 4 – Unidentified Damselfly

 

Subject: Unidentified damselfly with orange forked tail
Location: Ontario, Lake Nipissing
September 13, 2012 10:09 pm
Hello What’s That Bug,
I have a photo of a damselfly that I can’t identify – it doesn’t look like any phase of the Eastern forktail damselfly that I know of – and the image doesn’t seem to match other species either. Do you know what this species of damselfly is?
Signature: Noah Cole

Damselfly

Hi Noah,
Damselfly identification to the species level can be very challenging.  We are posting your lovely photo and inviting our readers to assist in the correct identification.  It is getting late and we still have to grade some student work.

Letter 5 – What's That True Bug #1? Damsel Bug perhaps

 

Tiny Bug
Location: Missouri
November 19, 2010 4:10 pm
I took this picture about a month ago (10-24-10). I really have no idea what kind of bug it is and would love some help on an ID.
Signature: Nathanael Siders

What's That Bug?????: Damsel Bug we believe

Hi Nathanael,
Daniel had a really rough week and he is baking Sliva Crumble to take to an early turkey dinner.  This is a True Bug in the suborder Heteroptera.  It appears to be predatory and we do not believe it is a Damsel Bug.  We will try searching BugGuide when we have a chance.  Meanwhile, we are starting a spin-off of the original What’s That Bug? and it will be a doppleganger of What’s That Bug? Tagged What’s That Bug?

Well, tell Daniel that I hope he can have a relaxing weekend and Thanksgiving.  I appreciate you guys getting to this so quickly and now that you have given me a direction to go, I will do some searching as well.  I will reply back if I find anything promising.
Nathanael

Update
November 21, 2010
We finally had an opportunity to check out the Damsel Bugs on BugGuide and we believe this individual looks very much like a member of the genus
Nabis that is pictured on Bugguide.

Authors

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  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

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  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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