Dragonflies and damselflies are beautiful, graceful flying wetland creatures, belonging to the Odonata order of insects. They’re incredibly ancient, and date back to prehistoric times when giant versions the size of eagles roamed the skies.

Learn more about Odonata with our guide to their characteristics, and some of the species you might spot in the UK.

Migrant hawker
Migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta)

Dragonfly and damselfly habitat

Dragon and damselflies live in a variety of wetland habitats, but always favouring those with good water quality, as their nymphs grow underwater and require clear water in order to hunt. Various species favour different habitats, from fast flowing river specialists to still ponds and acidic bogs. They can be see throughout the UK (and at our wetland centres) from early to late summer.

Damselfly or Dragonfly?

Damselflies and dragonflies are both members of the same family. Yet there are actually quite a few basic differences you can use to tell them apart, even if you aren’t sure which species you’ve seen.

Damselfly (Zygoptera)

  • Smaller than a dragonfly
  • Wings closed at rest
  • Eyes not touching at top of head – to help them ambush prey from vegetation
  • Flight weak and fluttering, they don’t engage in aerial combat
Emerald damselfly
Emerald damselfly (Lestes sponsa)

Dragonfly (Anisoptera)

  • Larger than a damselfly
  • Wings open at rest
  • Eyes touching at top of head
  • Flight strong and purposeful, often aggressive fighters in the sky
Four-spotted chaser
Four-spotted chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata)

Although damselflies are usually smaller and more delicate than dragonflies, some species like the tropical wetland-dwelling Pseudostigmatidae, otherwise known as helicopter damselflies or forest giants, can have a wingspan of up to 17cm!

What makes dragon and damselflies so unique?

They have two huge compound eyes (30,000 individual facets - the largest eyes for their body size of all animals), designed to look upwards. The eyes are so large that they take up most of the head, and 80% of the brain deals with visual information.

The eyes are formed of 30,000 individual facets
The eyes are formed of 30,000 individual facets

If you look at a dragonfly closely, you will see a very complex veination in the wings. This is a clue to their ancient lineage. They were flying around almost in their present form 250 million years ago, in the Jurassic period. If you look at the wings of later insects, for example the parasitic wasp, you will see that they have very few veins.

Dragonfly wings have an extremely complex veination
Dragonfly wings have an extremely complex veination

In modern insects, the wing muscles move the sides of the thorax – and the wings move. But because dragonflies are ancient insects, the wing muscles are connected directly to the wings. This gives a much slower wing beat - 30-40 beats per second (midges beat at 1,000 beats per sec) which is why dragonflies make a noise like a little football rattle. However, this old flight system enables dragonflies to move each wing independently, which means they are aerobatic. Not only can they fly backwards, they can also hover like a helicopter and perform hairpin turns at extreme speed.

Banded demoiselle
Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)

Dragon and damselfly life cycle

  • Dragon and damselflies come together to mate in a ‘wheel’ position in the air or on a plant
  • They then ‘oviposit’ fertilised eggs in submerged vegetation or directly into water in some species
  • The eggs hatch the following spring, and the nymph spends a few years as a fierce aquatic predator
  • When the nymph is fully grown, it climbs up a support, usually an emergent plant, and the skin on the back splits, while the adult dragonfly slowly emerges. It has been estimated that 50% of emergences are unsuccessful due to predation in this vulnerable time
  • Haemolymph (insect blood) is pumped into the wings and body to expand them. When the dragonfly is full size, the thorax needs to be 27°C before it can fly, so they increase the temperature of the thorax by whirring the wings
  • The empty larval skin is left behind on the plant, and this is called the ”exuvia”
  • Newly emerged dragonflies are immature or “teneral”. They are thinner and paler, and it takes a few weeks of feeding and sunny weather before they are fully mature.

Threats to dragon and damselflies

  • Inappropriate wetland management and improvement schemes
  • Pollution
  • Excessive nutrients in the water causing water quality to diminish
  • Over-shading by trees or buildings
  • Changing water levels and excessive human activity
  • The effects of climate change: disrupted weather patterns that cause rainy summers can mean that the weak emergent adults won’t survive without sufficient sunlight

Dragon and damselfly species in the UK

There are 57 recorded species of Odonata in the UK, too many to list here. Instead, some of the more common dragonflies and damselflies in the UK are listed below - so head to your nearest wetland and see what's around.

  • Southern hawker
  • Emperor dragonfly
  • Four-spotted chaser
  • Brown hawker
  • Common darter
  • Ruddy darter
  • Emerald damselfly
  • Large red damselfly
  • Blue-tailed damselfly
  • Common blue damselfly
  • Azure damselfly
  • Banded demoiselle
  • Beautiful demoiselle

Having trouble telling the difference? We've also put together a free dragonfly and damselfly spotter's guide to some of the more common species you might see.

How do dragonflies help us?

Dragonflies help us to control the population of insects, especially mosquitoes and biting flies.

They inspire new technology based on their incredible aerial skills and extraordinary vision.

And they are great indicators of water quality, choosing clean environments with water high in oxygen and free from pollution.

How can we help them?

Dragon and damselflies are lovely to look at, but try not to handle, swat or catch them – their necks are very delicate and you wouldn’t want to inadvertently harm it.

Clean and healthy wetlands, big or small, are the key to enabling dragonflies (and other species crucial to their ecosystem) to thrive.

At our wetland sites we’ve worked hard to make the perfect healthy wetland habitat for as many species as possible.

  • At WWT Steart Marshes, 19 species have been recorded in total – designating it a Priority Site of Local Importance by the British Dragonfly Society.
  • WWT Caerlaverock has been awarded status as a Dragonfly Hotspot by the British Dragonfly Society (BDS).
  • At WWT Welney, special dragonfly ponds provide a haven for a variety of species.

You might also be interested in...

How to build a wildlife pond - adding water to your garden is one of the most helpful things you can do for all wildlife, but especially for dragonflies that need healthy wetlands to breed.

How to build a mini wetland - don’t have much space? All you need is a drainpipe. You can even make one on your balcony. You might be surprised who turns up!