Frequently asked questions

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about dragonflies and damselflies. If you have a question not answered on the site, please contact me.

  • What do they eat?

    Dragonflies and damselflies are insectivores: they are carnivorous predators of other insects and don’t eat vegetation. Many species catch and eat flying insects on the wing, but some also hunt by hovering and gleaning any crawling insects they can find in trees, plants and other vegetation. Generally insects get most of their water from what they eat, so seeing a dragonfly or damselfly drinking water is not common, but they may drink dew or raindrops occasionally.

    Their larva, the aquatic nymph stage, are also fierce carnivorous predators and will eat anything that is smaller than themselves, even tadpoles and small fish.

  • How long do they live?

    Odonata have a surprisingly long life, but they spend most of it hidden from view at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and ponds. The nymph stage of some species may live for 5 years or more, but once they emerge from the water adult dragonflies and damselflies don’t enjoy a long life; a few days or weeks in the case of damselflies, up to a few weeks or months for dragonflies.

  • Where do they live?

    Dragonflies and damselflies can be found on every continent, except Antarctica where it is too cold and dry for Odonata. There are around 7,000 species found worldwide and most species are found in tropical climates; here in the UK we have about 46 species, and about half of them are found in Bedfordshire.

    They live wherever clean water is present, either at rivers and streams, ponds and lakes, and in woods and meadows that aren’t too far away from water.

  • When can I see them?

    In the UK, dragonflies and damselflies usually start to emerge in April and can be seen into the Autumn, sometimes as late as October and November. Recent warmer winters has even seen some hardy individuals in December and January.

Myths about Odonata

While dragonflies and damselflies are in reality completely harmless to humans, a number of myths have arisen about them, here are a few that can be ‘debunked’.

  • Dragonflies sting – Not true

    Dragonflies capture and overpower their prey utilising speed and agility, and eat using a powerful set of mandibles. Because they have no need for stinging, they lack any stinging parts and so have no means of stinging humans or other insects.

    Occasionally a female may try to oviposit in completely inappropriate situations, such as on a boot or even someone’s head. This might be confused with a stinging action as the abdomen probes, but it’s merely a confused dragonfly!

  • Dragonflies are poisonous – Not true

    They have no venom, and aren't poisonous to other creatures – and in some cultures they are seen as a dinner table delicacy.

    Although dragonflies are agile fliers, birds such as Hobbies, Kestrels, Fly Catchers, and Bee Eaters regularly prey on dragonflies. Many dragonflies have typical warning colours of red and black, or yellow and black, but this is more likely a survival tactic than a warning.

  • Dragonflies bite – Not true

    Dragonflies won’t land on a person and bite them, and their mouth parts are too small to have any real effect on people. You may feel it if a dragonfly nipped you in a defensive response – if captured perhaps, but dragonflies don’t attack people, and a threatened dragonfly would simply fly away rather than attack or bite.

    However, the nymph of a dragonfly has a powerful jaw and can inflict a bite that will certainly be felt!

  • Dragonflies live only a day – Not true

    Nymphs live for several years underwater. It's true that adult dragonflies and damselflies don’t enjoy a long life, but they do live for a few days or weeks in the case of damselflies, up to a few weeks or months for dragonflies.

Unique facts about Odonata

Dragonflies and damselflies are ancient insects whose ancestors first appeared more than 300 million years ago. They have many unique features not found in other insects.

  • Labium

    The larva of dragonflies and damselflies have a specialised mouthpart, called the labium, which enables them to capture food in a way that is unique in the insect world. 10 times faster than a human blinks, it shoots out to capture its unfortunate victim, seizing it in powerful jaws to bring it back to its waiting mouth. It’s too fast for most prey to react, and remarkably effective.

  • Reproduction

    Dragonflies and damselflies reproduce in a unique way. The male has two sets of reproductive organs, requiring some unusual acrobatics during mating.

  • Biggest eyes

    Dragonfly eyes are the largest of all insects, and also the largest in proportion to the head. They have two compound eyes, that each may have more 20,000 individual facets. They have stereo vision that covers almost 360°, can see in colour and ultraviolet, and even detect polarised light.

  • Underwater jet propulsion

    Dragonfly nymphs can propel themselves rapidly through the water using jet propulsion – the only insect to do so. They take in water into the rectum and forcibly expel it as a means of escape from predators.

  • Flying

    Dragonflies were amongst the first flying creatures to evolve, and they are masters of the air. Dragonflies and damselflies have remarkable control over each individual wing, and this allows them to fly in all directions: they can hover, fly forward and backwards, move side to side and up and down – they are the insect equivalent of a helicopter.

Cultural perceptions

East compared to West

In many European cultures dragonflies and damselflies have aroused superstition and associations with the devil or misfortune. Old European names for dragonflies include ‘devils darning needles’, ‘horse stingers’, ‘adderbolt’ and ‘water witch’.

Eastern cultures, in contrast, often view dragonflies as benign and symbolising summer and happiness, but also fragility. They provide much inspiration for haiku poetry for example.

In reality Odonata are wonderful and harmless creatures that are a joy to watch. They eat pest insects such as mosquitoes and are good indicators of water quality and environmental changes.