Identification

The often brilliantly coloured dragonflies and damselflies are the hawks of the insect world. They have long cylindrical bodies with two pairs of intricately veined wings, large compound eyes and biting mouthparts. The wings and eyes enable them to be some of the most aerobatic insects and ferocious predators. They catch insect prey on the wing, gripping it with their legs before finding a perch where it can be devoured.

Dragonflies and damselflies make up the order Odonata, and are separated on wing shape: the two pairs of wings are similar in size and shape in the damselflies, whereas the hind wings of dragonflies are broader than the fore wings.

The Odonata go through incomplete metamorphosis. The carnivorous nymphs are aquatic, feeding on pond insects, tadpoles and even small fish. When fully grown the nymphs climb waterside vegetation where they moult for the final time. The emerging adult expands and dries its wings before flying off in search of its first aerial meal.

Size

The largest flying insects found in Britain, with wingspans ranging from 25mm in the scarce emerald damselfly to 106mm in the emperor dragonfly.

Distribution

Everywhere in the UK.

Status

Over 5000 species of Odonata have been described worldwide, 25 species of dragonfly and 17 species of damselfly are resident in the UK. Many species have restricted distributions or are in decline, three species have become extinct in the UK during the past 40 years. A biodiversity action plan has been developed for the southern damselfly. Recently some continental species have become established in Britain, including the small red-eyed damselfly.

Where to find them in the garden

Adults may be seen in flight searching for prey, sometimes some distance from water. Nymphs can be found in ponds but some species breed in rivers and streams.

Role in the garden

Dragonflies and damselflies provide extra colour and interest in the garden. Adults reduce the numbers of nuisance insects such as mosquitoes and biting midges. Garden ponds provide valuable habitat for the nymphal stages.