How Do Dragonflies Mate: Unveiling the Mysterious Process

Dragonflies are fascinating creatures known for their exceptional flying abilities and vibrant colors. What’s equally interesting is their unique mating process. While it may seem complex to some, understanding how these insects mate can offer valuable insights into their behavior and life cycle.

Adult male dragonflies are territorial and can often be seen perching on branches or other objects, as they patrol their area and drive away rival males. They try to attract females for mating, and when successful, the mating pairs typically fly in tandem. During this time, the female dragonfly flies low over the water, depositing eggs directly on the surface.

The order Odonata, which includes dragonflies and damselflies, is one of the most popular insect groups due to their distinctive characteristics and behaviors. These insects are not only attractive and easily observable but also display charismatic behaviors that intrigue both amateurs and professionals alike.

Dragonfly Mating Basics

Male and Female Dragonflies

Dragonflies are ancient insects with a 325-million-year history. There are distinct differences between male and female dragonflies:

  • Males: Generally more colorful, with bright markings
  • Females: Often duller in color, with muted markings

The Mating Process

Dragonfly mating starts with the male attracting a female. Once the female is receptive, the male grasps her behind the head with terminal claspers at the end of his abdomen. This connection is called the tandem linkage.

Tandem Linkage and Wheel Position

In tandem linkage, male and female dragonflies join together to form a flying pair. They then assume the wheel position for the transfer of sperm:

  • Male: Bends abdomen to reach secondary genitalia, where sperm is stored
  • Female: Bends abdomen forward to reach male’s spermatophore

The wheel position ensures successful mating and fertilization of eggs.

Pre-Mating Behavior

Establishing Territory

  • Adult male dragonflies use their acute vision to monitor and protect a selected area
  • Territories are usually near water sources, vital for reproduction

Adult male dragonflies rely heavily on their exceptional vision to establish territories. They choose an area close to water, as this is crucial for mating and reproduction. Monitoring their territories, male dragonflies fend off rival males to maintain dominance within the area.

Courtship

  • Males display flight patterns to attract females
  • Cerci are used to grasp females during courtship

In order to attract females, male dragonflies engage in unique flight patterns. Their goal is to get the attention of nearby female dragonflies. Successful courtship often culminates in the male using his cerci, the clasping structures at the end of his abdomen, to grasp the female.

Competition

  • Male dragonflies compete for females during the mating season
  • Some males subdue rival males to ensure breeding success

During the summer months, the mating season for dragonflies is in full swing. In the quest to breed, male dragonflies engage in fierce competition with one another. They may use various tactics to subdue rival males, ensuring their own chance at reproducing with the available female dragonflies.

Feature Male Dragonfly Female Dragonfly
Territory Establishes and defends territory close to water sources Seeks out territories held by males
Courtship behaviors Displays flight patterns, uses cerci to grasp females Attracted by flight displays, supportive in copulation
Competition Engages in fierce competition with rival males Observes and may choose mates based on competition prowess

Post-Mating Activities

Egg-Laying and Aquatic Life Cycle

After mating, female dragonflies usually fly low over the water, depositing eggs directly on the surface. Examples of species that do this include the dragonflies and damselflies of the order Odonata. The eggs then develop into aquatic nymphs or larvae, growing and molting several times before undergoing metamorphosis into adult dragonflies.

Some of the characteristics of dragonfly nymphs include:

  • Aquatic lifestyle
  • Predatory behavior
  • Compact body size

Some unique features of adult dragonflies are:

  • Large, compound eyes
  • Strong thorax for powerful flight
  • Ability to fly at high speeds and change direction quickly

Predators and Risks

Post-mating, there is danger for some dragonflies. Risks during the mating process include injury, death, or predation by animals such as spiders, frogs, and other flying insects. However, dragonflies are also predators themselves, with both adults and nymphs preying on various aquatic organisms and insects.

Here is a comparison table of the predators and risks faced by dragonflies:

Predator/Risk Predominantly Affects Examples
Spiders Adults Web-weaving spiders capturing dragonflies mid-flight
Frogs Adults, Nymphs Frogs catching dragonflies while perching near ponds
Other insects Adults Swarms of flying insects competing for resources or causing injury

In conclusion, the post-mating activities of dragonflies involve egg-laying and the development of aquatic nymphs, as well as facing various predators and risks in their environment.

Research and Study

Current Academic Studies

Scientists have been continually working to understand the mating habits of dragonflies. One noteworthy study about dragonfly population structure provides insights into their mating rituals, stating that dragonflies mate with multiple partners, with males often guarding their mates to prevent intrusion from other males1.

Notable female moorland hawker dragonflies display unique behavior of evading aggressive males by playing dead during mating2. This highlights the variety among different dragonfly species when it comes to their mating strategies.

Publications like Princeton University Press and Encyclopedia of Insects offer valuable insights into dragonfly mating habits. Academic Press has also published studies, featuring important understanding of these fascinating insects3.

To make understanding easier, here’s a comparison table of notable dragonfly species and their behaviors:

Dragonfly Species Mating Strategy Additional Info
Moorland Hawker Playing Dead Females avoid aggressive males.
Common Green Darner Multiple mating Males guard territory.

Key features of dragonfly mating system:

  • Males usually guard their mating partners.
  • Mate with multiple partners.
  • Species-specific behaviors like playing dead.

Characteristics to consider:

  • Territorial nature of males.
  • Female strategies to avoid aggressive males.
  • Possibility of multi-generational life cycles4.

Considering these facts, keep an attentive and open mind when exploring the captivating world of dragonflies and their mating habits.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6065342/

  2. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2138658-dragonfly-females-play-dead-to-avoid-molesting-males/

  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1686212/

  4. https://nationalzoo.si.edu/news/smithsonian-scientists-unlock-mystery-dragonfly-migration

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 – Mating Dragonflies from Australia

 

Bug Love
Bugman, your site is so enthralling. I have these to add to your bug love page. All taken in Queensland Australia in April 2007. Hope you like these. regards,
Trevor Jinks
Australia

Hi again Trevor,
We will only be posting your Mating Dragonflies as it is our favorite image.

Letter 2 – Mating Green Darner Dragonflies

 

Help identify
Can you tell me what this bug is, befor we start seing the bug we saw a big type caterpiller( 3.5″ lime green) aroung in the garden and grass, now these appear. Do you know what they are? Thanks
Dave Stevens
Dickson City, Pa.

Hi Dave,
These are mating Green Darners, a species of dragonfly. They have nothing to do with the caterpillar.

Letter 3 – Mating Green Darners

 

Hi! A friend of mine posted a link to this site in his blog and I fell in love with it instantly. I have some pictures of dragonflies I thought you might like, but I don’t know what kind they are. The one on my hand I found outside my front door, dead. =C The ones in the water I patiently followed around in the John Martin Reservoir until I could get close enough to capture their mating, and the one in the grass was one of hundreds that were flying around the city park. All the pics were taken in South Eastern Colorado. Thanks for your awsome site!

Dear Mysterious Photographer of Dragonflies
We really love your image of Mating Green Darners,
Anax junius. We have written several times about this mating position and the male’s anal claspers. What is really great is that you have captured the female depositing eggs.

Letter 4 – Mating Dragonflies

 

More bug love
I love your site!! I just found it and will be using it to help identify some of my insect species I find up here in southwestern Manitoba in Canada. My co-workers have been teasing me lately b/c of my photos of what they call, ‘beetle porn’. I noticed you didn’t have many for the dragonflies so I thought I would send my most lovely one to you…photo that is. And if you care to tell me the species, I would great appreciate that as well, save me from looking it up!
Sherry Lynn Punak-Murphy
Natural Resource Technician/Biologist
Manitoba

Hi Sherry-Lynn,
Your photo of mating Dragonflies. It truly is wonderful. We are not that adept at exact species identification of Dragonflies. Perhaps a reader will supply us with an answer and perhaps you will do the work on the exact identification and notify us. Please include Dragonfly ID in the subject line.

Letter 5 – Mating Dragonflies from Australia

 

Bug Love
Bugman, your site is so enthralling. I have these to add to your bug love page. All taken in Queensland Australia in April 2007. Hope you like these. regards,
Trevor Jinks
Australia

Hi again Trevor,
We will only be posting your Mating Dragonflies as it is our favorite image.

Letter 6 – Mating Dragonflies: American Emeralds

 

More bug love
I love your site!! I just found it and will be using it to help identify some of my insect species I find up here in southwestern Manitoba in Canada. My co-workers have been teasing me lately b/c of my photos of what they call, ‘beetle porn’. I noticed you didn’t have many for the dragonflies so I thought I would send my most lovely one to you…photo that is. And if you care to tell me the species, I would great appreciate that as well, save me from looking it up!
Sherry Lynn Punak-Murphy
Natural Resource Technician/Biologist
Manitoba

Hi Sherry-Lynn,
Your photo of mating Dragonflies. It truly is wonderful. We are not that adept at exact species identification of Dragonflies. Perhaps a reader will supply us with an answer and perhaps you will do the work on the exact identification and notify us. Please include Dragonfly ID in the subject line.

Update: (07/07/2008) Mating Dragonflies
Hi Bugman:
Re: Mating Dragonflies (07/04/2008) More bug love Really nice shot! These look like American Emeralds (Cordulia shurtleffi). I am from Manitoba as well and this species is fairly common here. There are lots of good photos online; e.g.,: http://www.pbase.com/dragonhunter/image/63103267 and http://talkaboutwildlife.ca/profile/?s=741 Regards,
Karl

Hi Karl,
Thanks for doing the work on this identification.

Letter 7 – Mating Dragonflies

 

Dragonfly Love
Mon, Mar 30, 2009 at 7:23 AM
I was working in my yard yesterday when this pair of dragonflies flew in and stuck around long enough for me to get a camera and take some pictures of them while they were on their “honeymoon” 🙂 Thought you might like this for your Bug Love page.
Paul
Garland, TX

Dragonflies mating
Dragonflies mating

Hi Paul,
Thanks for sending the mating Dragonfly image. Many Dragonflies mate in this position, with the male grasping the female by her neck with his claspers. We don’t want to even attempt to identify your species since Dragonflies still tend to baffle us after all these years.  Perhaps one of our readers who is more adept at Dragonfly identification can assist in this matter.

Letter 8 – Metamorphosis of a Dragonfly

 

Is this critter a Phytocoris varipes?
July 29, 2009
I found this critter on the control weir of a retention pond this morning. The fresh moulted shell was about two inches away from it and looks exactly like the pictures I can find on the Internet of Phytocoris varipes but the large growth between the body and head of the moulted insect are puzzling. I expect this will dissipate as the moult process completes? This insect, whatever it is, is about one inch long.
charlibrown
Elgin, South Carolina

Dragonfly Metamorphosis
Dragonfly Metamorphosis

Hi charlibrown,
You witnessed a Dragonfly metamorphosis.  The aquatic Naiad or larva has crawled out of the water and split its exoskeleton.  The growth you mentioned is actually the head of the adult Dragonfly with its large compound eyes.  Perhaps one of our readers can identify the species.

Letter 9 – Mating Green Darners

 

Dragonflies mating?
Location:  Kansas
October 5, 2010 10:35 pm
I took this picture about a month ago thinking the dragonflies were just pretty. But, as I looked closer it seems like they might be mating? Any ideas?
Signature:  Mary

Mating Green Darners

Dear Mary,
Your photo of Green Darners assuming or retaining the mating position is stunning.  We cropped it to maintain the reflection in the water even though the Dragonflies appear a bit smaller because of that aesthetic decision.  You can read more about Green Darners on bugGuide.

Thanks so much for helping me learn more about dragonflies. I had no idea how they procreated. Very cool that you posted my picture as well. I spent about an hour on your site last night just reading about spiders. So much fun.
Take care,
Mary

Letter 10 – Midland Clubtail Dragonfly eats Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly

 

dragon eats damsel
Jun 8, 2011
Hey there, bug-nuts!
I was just out photographing damsel and dragonflies when this happened:
A Midland Clubtail dragonfly came whipping by and took down an Ebony Jewelwing damselfy right next to me!  The Jewelwings frequently pick mosquitos out of the air around me, but this is the first time I’ve seen this particular predator become prey.  Very exciting!
I guess this is what happens to the damsel if the knight doesn’t get to the dragon in time.  Ha!
Don D
St.Augusta, MN

Midland Clubtail eats Ebony Jewelwing

Dear Don,
PHotos of Dragonflies eating Damselflies or Dragonflies eating other Dragonflies are always an exciting treat.  These top of the food chain insect predators will eat just about anything they can catch.

Letter 11 – Mating Green Darners

 

Dragonflies (Anax junius)
Location: Florida
November 20, 2011 6:00 pm
We’ve had lots of these Common Green Darners (Anax Junius) in our yard this summer and fall. Today I saw two pairs of Green Darners mating, flying in the tandem position. Both pairs would periodically land on the ground, and the female would immediately push the end segment of her abdomen down to the ground. I know dragonflies lay their eggs in water, so she was not laying eggs though it might have looked that way. I’m very curious about her behavior–do you know what she was doing?
Thanks again for this great site!
Signature: Karen in FL

Green Darners Mating

Hi Karen,
Thanks so much for sending us your excellent images of Green Darners mating to include in our archive.  We do not know what the activity you describe means.  You are correct that Dragonflies lay eggs in water, not on the ground.  Perhaps someone with knowledge of this behavior will write in with an explanation.

Letter 12 – Mating Tiger Spiketail Dragonflies

 

Subject: Dragonfly Bug Love <3
Location: Clifton, Va
August 31, 2014 7:01 am
Found this amorous pair in Hemlock Park- Clifton, Va
Signature: Katie from Manassas

Mating Dragonflies
Mating Dragonflies

Hi Katie,
We believe your mating Dragonflies are Tiger Spiketails,
Cordulegaster erronea, based on this image from BugGuide and the distribution range.

Letter 13 – Mating Mosaic Darners

 

Subject:  Dragonfly
Geographic location of the bug:  Huff Lake, Bonner County, Idaho, USA
Date: 09/07/2019
Time: 01:07 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Dragonfly cruising marsh shore of Huff Lake in north Idaho. Apparently mating. Can you identify it from the images?
How you want your letter signed:  Sailortom

Mosaic Darners in mating position

Dear Sailortom,
We believe these are Mosaic Darners in the genus
Aeshna which is represented on BugGuide.  Several similar looking species are found in Idaho, and we do not feel confident providing a species identification.  Though you indicate they were “cruising marsh shore” they do not appear alive in your images.

Mosaic Darner

Thank’s. I am happy with the generic ID. The images are of living Darners. They perched on a dock long enough for pictures. Then they linked up, I assume to mate.

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.

6 thoughts on “How Do Dragonflies Mate: Unveiling the Mysterious Process”

  1. Those ones are Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura), with apparently weakly marked wings. Eyes reddish brown, thorax brown, hairy, with few small yellow spots on the sides, yellow spot on sides of most abdomen’s segments.

    Reply
  2. From the length of the lateral spines on the nymphal abdomen and the color of the adult eyes, plus the tan color of the thorax, I would think this is Pantala flavescens.

    Reply
  3. Can’t be totally positive from the photo (way the males abdomen is curved), but I would think these are either Cordulia shurtleffii or Dorocordulia libera.

    Reply
  4. From the position, mating is most likely finished and the female is ovipositing. Oviposition typically is in the tandem position, prevents other males form mating with the female. Aeschnids oviposit into plant tissues.

    Reply
  5. That’s impressive.

    By the color of the Calopteryx eyes I can tell it is still immature, so not as swift as it should be.

    Reply

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