Damselflies and Dragonflies

July 6th, 2023

The riparian corridors on the Willits Bypass Mitigation Lands are the best place to walk in the heat of summer. Not only do humans think so, but the birds, mammals, insects, and other wildlife also seem to prefer these areas. Since plenty of water still flows into pools along Outlet and Davis Creek, I notice the damselflies and dragonflies everywhere. They rest on twigs, fenceposts and fence wires, cattails, and bulrushes. Sitting and observing on the banks of Outlet Creek there is an opportunity to compare dragonflies and damselflies. They both live around bodies of water and can be quite colorful. Also, dragonflies and damselflies lay their eggs in water and have aquatic larvae, but there are obvious differences.

Damselflies rest with their wings held together parallel to their bodies while dragonflies rest with their wings outspread like an airplane. If the damselfly opens its wings for you, you will see that both the forewings and hindwings are the same shape and size, and they taper where they attach to the body of the damselfly. Dragonflies on the other hand have different size forewings and hindwings, their hindwings are broader and shorter and don’t taper as much. This gives dragonflies the appearance of an airplane and damselflies the appearance of a colorful stick. Two other characteristics will help to differentiate the two Odonata Order species. One is the overall size; dragonflies are generally larger and bulkier bodied, and damselflies are long and narrow twig shaped. If you get a close look at both, maybe using close-focusing binoculars, you will see that dragonflies have large bulbous eyes that do not have a space between them. They are connected. Damselflies have smaller eyes that are separated by a space between them.

Another difference I have found personally is that damselflies are not shy to land on a human and often do so, but dragonflies rarely do. Saving a drowning dragonfly could result in a bite on the hand or finger (so it is better to use a stick) but damselflies will just crawl up on your hand, dry off, and fly away.

Both damselflies and dragonflies predate on insects such as bees, butterflies, moths, and flies. Dragonflies often eat other dragonflies and are strong and fast fliers unlike damselflies, who are slow, weak fliers in comparison. During the larval life stage, damselfly and dragonfly nymphs eat invertebrates, insect larvae, and small fish. The damselfly nymphs have gills on the end of their rectum and are long and thin, whereas dragonfly nymphs have gills on their abdomen and are short and broad. This is the time of year to start looking for the nymphs under rocks in streams, rivers, and ponds.

It is entertaining to sit and watch dragonflies and damselflies being territorial, chasing each other and even birds away from their favorite lookout spots. Spend some time next to a river or creek and see how many different species you can find. Remember that the males and females can differ in coloration and sometimes size can vary too.