Do Damselflies Bite? Debunking Myths and Revealing Facts

Damselflies are fascinating insects known for their slender bodies and delicate wings. They are often admired for their vibrant colors and graceful movements near water sources. As people encounter these insects in nature, a common question arises: do damselflies bite?

The answer is quite simple: no, damselflies do not bite humans. They do not have the ability to sting and are regarded as harmless to people. Since they are weak fliers, damselflies spend most of their time resting with their wings held together above their bodies, making them less likely to come into contact with humans. In contrast to their peaceful demeanor, damselflies are considered voracious predators in the insect world, feeding on other small insects.

While damselflies do not pose any threat to humans, it is advisable to observe them from a distance to allow them to thrive in their natural habitat. Remember to always be respectful of wildlife and enjoy the beauty these insects have to offer.

Understanding Damselflies

Characteristics and Anatomy

Damselflies are delicate insects belonging to the order Odonata, suborder Zygoptera. Adult damselflies have:

  • Slender, elongated abdomens
  • Two pairs of wings typically held together over the body
  • Membranous and elaborately veined wings
  • Hindwing is about the same size and shape as the forewing
  • Large compound eyes, usually not touching
  • Short antennae

Nymphs, which are the larvae of damselflies, live in water and also have 6 thin legs and large eyes. They possess small wing buds on the back of their thorax and have 3 leaflike or paddlelike gills at the tip of their abdomen1.

Comparing Damselflies and Dragonflies

Damselflies

  • Wings held together above the body when at rest
  • Delicate bodies
  • Slender abdomens
  • Eyes usually do not touch
  • Weaker fliers

Dragonflies

  • Wings held horizontally or downward when at rest
  • Robust bodies
  • Thick abdomens
  • Eyes usually touching
  • Strong fliers

Here is a table for quick comparison:

| Damselflies | Dragonflies
—|—|—
Wing Position at Rest | Together above the body | Horizontal or downward
Body | Delicate | Robust
Abdomen | Slender | Thick
Eyes | Usually not touching | Usually touching
Flight Ability | Weaker fliers | Strong fliers

Do Damselflies Bite?

Biting Mechanism

Damselflies possess mandibles that they use primarily for capturing and consuming prey. These tiny creatures may attempt to bite when they feel threatened or are handled improperly.

Example: If you were to pick one up, it might try to bite you in self-defense.

Potential Harm to Humans

However, damselfly bites are generally harmless to humans. They lack venom or any toxin that could cause significant pain or irritation. Their mandibles are weak compared to those of other insects, which means that their bite, if at all felt, would feel like a slight pinch.

In conclusion, damselflies can bite, but they pose no real threat or harm to humans.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Eggs and Larval Stage

Damselflies lay their eggs in or near water, often on plants. The eggs hatch into aquatic larvae called nymphs or naiads. Nymphs are:

  • Slender
  • Have large eyes
  • 3 gills at the tip of their abdomen

Nymphs undergo incomplete metamorphosis, which means gradual development over several molts. They are skilled predators in their environment, feeding on small aquatic organisms.

Mating and Fertilization

Male and female damselflies engage in unique mating behaviors. Key characteristics of the mating process:

  • Males use claspers at the end of their abdomen to grasp the female
  • Females bend their abdomens to receive sperm from the male, forming a loop or “mating wheel”
  • Sperm transfer occurs during this wheel formation
  • Males may guard females to prevent other males from mating

Comparison of Male and Female Damselflies:

Feature Male Female
Color Brighter, more vivid Duller, less vibrant
Abdomen Thicker More slender

By understanding the life cycle and reproductive behaviors of damselflies, we can appreciate their unique attributes and the role they play in their natural environments.

Diet and Feeding Habits

Hunting Techniques

Damselflies are carnivorous insects, and their primary prey includes small aquatic insects such as mosquito larvae, ants, mosquitoes, gnats, mayflies, and termites. They have unique hunting techniques that consist of the following steps:

  • Perching: Damselflies perch in vegetation near water to locate their prey.
  • Ambushing: They pounce quickly from their perch to capture the prey.

Role in Ecosystem

The feeding habits of damselflies play a crucial role in their ecosystem. Some key aspects are:

  • Predator: Damselflies help control the population of their prey, particularly mosquitoes, which are considered pests by humans.
  • Prey: Damselflies are also a food source for various other animals like birds, frogs, and spiders.

A quick comparison table of damselflies and their similar-looking counterparts, dragonflies, is shown below:

Feature Damselfly Dragonfly
Wings Position Folded together over the abdomen Held perpendicular to the body
Eyes Separated Touching or nearly touching
Larvae Longer, thinner, and more delicate Shorter, thicker, and more robust

While damselflies are carnivorous, they do not typically bite humans, and their bites are generally harmless. However, they play a significant role in the ecosystem, particularly in controlling the population of pest insects such as mosquitoes.

Habitat and Distribution

Common Environments

Damselflies typically inhabit freshwater environments where the water is clean and clear. Examples of these habitats include:

  • Ponds
  • Streams
  • Rivers
  • Lakes

Their range covers North America and Europe, where they are adapted to various climates and ecosystems. Damselfly larvae, known as nymphs, are aquatic and require suitable water conditions for their survival and development 1.

Impact of Climate Change

Climate change affects damselfly populations by altering their habitats, leading to changes in water quality and vegetation. Some potential impacts include:

  • Increase in water temperature: Higher temperatures reduce dissolved oxygen levels, making it challenging for damselfly nymphs to thrive 2.
  • Altered precipitation patterns: Changes in rainfall can impact water levels and, consequently, the distribution and abundance of prey and suitable vegetation for adults.
Impact Effect on Damselflies
Increased temperature Reduced survival rate
Altered precipitation Changes in distribution

To maintain healthy damselfly populations, it is crucial to monitor and protect freshwater habitats from the adverse effects of climate change.

Significance and Symbolism

Cultural Associations

Damselflies are often associated with various symbolism and beliefs in different cultures. They are viewed as symbols of change and transformation, as they start their life in the water and later emerge as a winged insect. In some cultures, they symbolize death and renewal, while in others, they represent good luck.

  • Change and transformation
  • Death and renewal
  • Good luck

Importance in Ecosystem

Damselflies play a crucial role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. As both nymphs and adults, they are predators for a variety of small insects, providing natural pest control. In addition, they serve as a food source for other creatures such as birds and fish. Their presence can also act as an indicator of healthy water quality, which contributes to overall environmental conservation efforts.

Pros:

  • Natural pest control
  • Indicator of water quality
  • Supports biodiversity

Cons:

  • Sensitive to habitat loss
  • Can be affected by pollution

Damselflies, for the most part, are harmless to humans. When handled, they might try to bite, but it is merely a pinch. Nevertheless, their ecological importance and cultural associations provide a fascinating perspective on these delicate insects.

Footnotes

  1. Damselfly Larvae | Missouri Department of Conservation 2

  2. Conservation Basics – Wildlife Habitat

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 – Damselfly: Rambur's Forktail

 

Dragonfly???
Location: Jacksonville FL
April 5, 2011 1:32 pm
Hello again Bugman!! Could you perhaps tell me if this is a dragonfly or maybe a damselfly? Very cool colors on it! I can’t tell you how much I love what you are doing here. I reference this website all the time! :}
Thanks for you continued efforts!
Signature: Dan

Damselfly: Rambur's Forktail

Hi Dan,
This is a Damselfly, not a Dragonfly.  We have to confess that trying to identify Damselflies to the species level is a challenge for us.  We believe this is a Narrow Winged Damselfly in the family Coenagrionidae and possibly one of the Bluets in the genus
Enallagma which is well represented on BugGuide.  The green coloration on the fore part of the body and the singly turquoise abdominal ring would seem to be distinguishing features, but we cannot seem to find a match on BugGuide.  We did find a matching image online, but it is not identified.  Perhaps one of our readers will eventually write in with a species identification.

Letter 2 – Damselfly: Male Eastern Forktail

 

Subject: What kind of dragonfly is this?
Location: Northern Illinois, USA, close to a river.
June 27, 2014 9:49 pm
I was down town for a flea market when I caught this interesting little dragonfly sitting on the side of a building, not moving very much at all. I got some good photographs of it, but I’m not sure what kind of dragonfly it is. Perhaps you know? 🙂
Signature: Amy

Damselfly
Damselfly is male Eastern Forktail

Hi Amy,
Though it is in the same order, Odonata, as the Dragonflies, this is actually a Damselfly in the suborder Zygoptera.  Damselflies feeble fliers, lacking the strength of Dragonflies, and Damselflies hold their wings folded above the body when at rest as opposed to the wings lying flat like Dragonflies.  We believe your Damselfly is a male Eastern Forktail which we initially located on the Flying Kiwi, and then checked its identity on BugGuide where we learned the scientific name is  
Ischnura verticalis.

Letter 3 – Fairy Shrimp

 

Subject: Weird insect in NC Linville Gorge
Location: 3050 ft, Shortoff Mountain, Linville Gorge Wilderness, North Carolina.
January 21, 2017 12:19 am
My name is Tyler Goulet. I am in “The Linville Gorge Facebook Group”. One of the members posted a picture and video of what I believe to be some sort of nymph. My friend is a fly fisherman who has taught me a little. Yet even he can’t identify it. We believe it may have been carried in by a bird. The insect was found in the pond on Shortoff Mountain in the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Which is 3050 ft in elevation.
Attached are two pictures of the insect. One in someones hands, it located closer to the edge of water near his thumb and index finger on the left hand. Also a screenshot of the gps coordinates.
Thank you in advance for your services
Signature: Signed by you and to me.

Fairy Shrimp

Dear Tyler,
This appears to be the aquatic nymph or naiad of a Damselfly.  Adults Damselflies are winged and they will frequently lay eggs in temporary ponds.

Correction:  Fairy Shrimp
Thanks to a comment from Black Zarak, we took a closer look and we are inclined to agree that this is a Fairy Shrimp.  The quality of the image is not great, but upon extreme magnification we are able to make out the swimming appendages.  This reminds us that with all the rain we have experienced in Los Angeles the past week, Fairy Shrimp may be hatching in the Rio de Los Angeles State Park in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Thank you for the reply.    The group also agreed that it is a fairy shrimp.    But I can’t find any information that would say they’re native to North Carolina.     I could only find states like Oregon, California and Arizona.     Thank you so much again.

Good morning Tyler,
During the 1960s, our editorial staff remembers caught Fairy Shrimp from the order Anostraca in Ohio in seasonal, vernal ponds that dried out in the summer.  BugGuide has data on sightings from nearby Georgia, Kentucky and Massachusetts, but the lack of reports from North Carolina just means no images have been posted from that state.  The Vernal Pools site has some nice information on Fairy Shrimp in Massachusetts and contains this statement:  “Winter eggs can be carried from pools to pool by traveling animals, or, in the case of pools that dry out completely, picked up in the wind and be blown to other pools. For reasons currently unknown to scientists, there is an uneven level of population in a pool from year to year. In a single pool, fairy shrimp may be abundant for several consecutive years and absent the next.”  The Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program site states:  “Two species of fairy shrimp found in Pennsylvania are the eastern fairy shrimp (
Eubranchipus holmani) and the springtime fairy shrimp (E. vernalis). The most frequently encountered species in Pennsylvania is the springtime fairy shrimp. E. vernalis has straight, smooth antennae, while E. holmani has longer antennae with medial serrations. The image to the right is a close-up view of male Eubranchipus vernalis second antennae. ”

Letter 4 – Damselfly Spousal Abuse: Cannibalism after Mating

 

Query Damsel Flies mating followed by cannibalism
Hi,
I was photographing these Eastern Forktail Damselflies (July 25th) and after mating the male appeared to be killing and eating the female. The wings actually fell off. I ‘Googled’ the query Damselfly Mating and Cannibalism and came to your site.
Marlene Walker
Huntsville, Ontario, Canada

Hi Marlene,
We are curious to hear from any experts regarding what we suspect is an unusual phenomenon. Postcoital Cannibalism is not that rare in the world of insects and arthropods since a male sperm donar will also provide a hearty meal for the female who now has the burdon of laying eggs. She needs her nourishment. The role reversal in your Damselfly image would seem to be an anomaly.

Correction: (09/03/2008)
Hello, I am a NY Dragonfly and Damselfly surveyor and am responding to the email below. The damselfly was identified as a male but it is in fact a female Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis). While it is not common for a female to eat the male it is not unheard of. Dragonflies and damselflies are frequently seen eating other dragonflies and damselflies.
Annette Oliveira
Long Island, New York

Letter 5 – Dominican Damselflies Mating: Rambur's Forktail

 

mating damselflies
Hello Bugman!
I have a photo of what I believe are damselflies mating. The picture was taken in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. I take it from what I’ve read that the top damselfly is the male. I also saw quite a few large, red coloured dragonflies while vacationing in the DR, but was unable to get any photos of them. Any chance of identifying this couple?
Thanks!
Yvonne,
Barrie, Ontario

Sorry Yvonne,
We don’t believe there is a definitive field guide to the Damselflies of the Dominican Republic, and if there was, we would still have difficulty. Damselfly species identification is not our strongest talent. We do love your photo, and you are correct in the sexes. A common mating position for Damselflies involves the male grasping the female by the neck with his anal claspers.

Update: Sat, Feb 21, 2009 at 2:54 AM
Good morning,
These are Rambur’s Forktail (Ishnura ramburii), with, on the male, the overall green thorax, black toped abdomen wih orange under and the blue spots at the end of the abdomen. Also the male have different colored stigmas (the little dark cells) on the forewings.
Renaud, Switzerland

Letter 6 – Fragile Forktail Damselfly

 

Fragile Forktail Damselfly
Location: Albany, NY
May 12, 2012 8:14 pm
I was just able to identify my bug as a Fragile Forktail Damselfly. I didn’t see any pictures of this species on your site, so thought you might like it. It’s supposed to be fairly common on the East coast.
Signature: Naomi

Fragile Forktail Damselfly

Hi Naomi,
Thank you so much for sending us your photograph of a Fragile Forktail Damselfly,
Ischnura posita.  According to BugGuide the Fragile Forktail Damselfly can be identified because of the “Pale shoulder stripes resemble exclamation points—true of both sexes.”  The marks are clearly visible in your photograph.

Letter 7 – How Damselflies Do It

 

3 pics
Hi! I’m in Florida and I have 3 pictures I have questions about. … And last, but not least…..I think you know what I’m going to ask :0) Thanks!
Jaime

So Jaime,
You want to know how Damselflies Do It. The male grasps the female around the neck with pincers he possesses on the tip of his abdomen. She then twists around with her abdomen to accept the sperm. Many species of Damselflies stay in this position while the eggs are laid, with the female depositing the eggs underwater. I’m sure the extra pairs of wings help to lift her back into the air after an egg has been laid. This is such a wonderful addition to our brand new Bug Love page.

Authors

    by
  • 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.

  • 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.

7 thoughts on “Do Damselflies Bite? Debunking Myths and Revealing Facts”

  1. Good morning,

    These are Rambur’s Forktail (Ishnura ramburii), with, on the male, the overall green thorax, black toped abdomen wih orange under and the blue spots at the end of the abdomen. Also the male have different colored stigmas (the little dark cells) on the forewings.

    Renaud, Switzerland

    Reply
    • Posting a comment to your own post will ensure that you will be automatically notified if there are any future comments. Sometimes an insect will be properly identified several years later and our disorganized editorial staff cannot keep track of email addresses to provide any followup, but thankfully, our crack technical team has set things up to ensure that the information highway stays opened.

      Reply
  2. Good morning,

    Here you have a male Ischnura ramburii.
    Ischnura are rather homogenous looking but location, green thorax, dark abdomen on top but with segment 8 all blue, no blue on S7 but blue on S9, bicolored pterostigmas, that’s ramburii.

    Bye
    Renaud

    Reply

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