Dragonhunter, jewelwing, pondhawk, and blue dasher. Those aren’t comic-book characters—they’re common names of a few of the more than 400 dragonfly and damselfly species that live in North America.
Dragonflies and damselflies both belong to the insect order Odonata. Dragonflies are much larger and hold their wings flat out from their body while at rest. Damselflies are much daintier and hold their wings closed over the top of their bodies.
As their common names suggest, dragonflies and damselflies are known both for their beauty and their aerial prowess. With two pairs of wings and an aerodynamic shape, they can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour, hover, and even fly backwards. (In fact, scientists seeking to improve planes and other flying vehicles have studied dragonflies.)
Their excellent eyesight and aerial agility allow them to capture and consume most insects smaller than themselves. Damselflies consume gnats and midges, while dragonflies eat beetles, moths, and mosquitoes. Larvae, called nymphs, dine on aquatic invertebrates, including large numbers of mosquito larvae, which makes them a welcome addition to any garden. Larger nymphs can even capture prey as big as tadpoles and small fish.
Here’s how to make your yard dragonfly-friendly:
Provide water. Ponds and other water features provide a place for dragonflies and damselflies to lay their eggs, a habitat for their aquatic larvae, and a spot to hunt for food. Even the smallest backyard pond will attract these beautiful insects if you create it with their needs in mind.
Supply vegetation. Although they are strictly carnivorous, dragonflies and damselflies need vegetation both in and around the pond. Males perch on the ends of rushes and on wetland shrubs to look for mates. Females often lay eggs on the leaves of water lilies and other floating plants. Both sexes regulate body temperature by basking on vegetation to warm up or hiding in the shade to cool down.
Select the right plants. Dragonflies and damselflies are not picky, so any native aquatic or wetland vegetation will work. Plants that will thrive in your pond include bulrush, pickerelweed, cattail, and water lily. For spots around the pond, consider blue flag iris, cardinal flower, red-twig dogwood, summersweet, and winterberry holly.
Keep it messy. An overly tidy pond isn’t ideal. Let some dead leaves and debris accumulate in the bottom of your pond to give nymphs a place to escape from predators and wait for prey. When it’s time to complete their metamorphosis, the nymphs climb onto the stem of an aquatic plant, shed their larval skin, and emerge as winged adults. You can add a small tree branch for additional underwater cover. Try half-submerging it so adults can use the section above the surface as a perch.
Go organic. Broad-spectrum insecticides kill dragonflies, damselflies, and their larvae.
Did you know?
• Dragonflies have been around for hundreds of millions of years. There were dragonflies with 2-foot wingspans flying around with the dinosaurs.
• When we hear about seasonal migration, most of us think of birds heading south for the winter. But did you know that some dragonflies also migrate? Certain species travel from the northern United States and Canada to the southern United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
• There are a lot of myths about dragonflies and damselflies, including the story that they’ll sew your eyes shut with their needle-like bodies. This idea earned them the nickname “devil’s darning needles.” Luckily, this is just a myth; these insects are totally harmless to people.
David Mizejewski is a naturalist, television personality, and author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife.