Attracting Damsels and Dragons

Common green darners mating and laying eggs.

Common green darners (Anax junius) mating and laying eggs under the water’s surface.

 

Many people have long been interested in birding and butterfly gardening, but with the availability of new dragonfly & damselfly field guides, more folks are now identifying and pursuing these interesting insects. And with their beautiful coloration and fun names like variable dancer, common green darner, eastern pondhawk, little blue drogonlet, how can anyone resist?  Plus they eat mosquitoes!

Even the Audubon Society has been spending more time covering dragonflies and damselflies online and in its magazine.

 

This is from their July/August issue:

Once you start watching dragonflies, you can’t help but notice how amazing they are. They fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, zip forward and backward, pivot in a flash, and hover with ease.

A damselfly and a dragonfly share a spatterdock pad.

A damselfly and a dragonfly share a spatterdock pad.

Dragons vs. Damsels

These insects belong to the order Odonata, which is divided into a number of different families–in Florida, there are nine families. But most people divide them into two main groups–the damselflies and dragonflies. Here’s how to tell them apart:

• When perching, damselflies hold their wings together or partially spread, while dragonflies hold their wings open when at rest, although some dragonflies tilt their wings slightly forward when perching.
• Dragonfly eyes meet at or near the top of the head, while damselfly eyes are set apart.
• Damselflies usually have thin bodies, while dragonfly bodies are normally thicker.
You probably see both types of odonates around your neighborhood.

You need a water feature

The larvae of the Odonata are aquatic and are called nymphs or naiads. These naiads are voracious predators and have a lower jaw that can be extended forward about one third of the body length in order to capture prey. Mosquito larvae are a favorite.

The larvae molt their exoskeletons several times in order to grow and with each molt they begin to develop adult characteristics. It’s important to have emergent vegetation in your water feature or pond where stems grow from under water up into the air. This is important for the odonates, because their final larval molt occurs above water.  The naiad must climb a stem before it can emerge from its last larval exoskeleton as an adult.

A habitat fountain attracts dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and other predators such as frogs.

Water attracts dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and predators such as frogs.
This drawing by Marjorie Shropshire is from my new book, “Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida.” Attracting predators is a big part of an effective organic garden and a water feature can make a big difference.

Your water feature does not need to be huge to attract the damsels and the dragons, but one that’s well designed as habitat will also host frogs, butterflies, and othr critters. And all these critters in turn attract their predators such as birds. When you install a water feature, or better yet, dig a more sizable pond, pretty soon you’ll have a working ecosystem that sustains itself.

Little blue dragonlet

A little blue dragonlet (Erythrodiplax minuscula).

Eastern pondhawk

Eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) on a mulched surface.

A tiny amberwing

The tiny eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) measures only an inch from wingtip to wingtip.

 To attract their prey, plant natives in your landscape

You often see dragonflies and damselflies perched in areas where they are likely to encounter their prey.  And what better place than amongst the plants that attract pollinators, the native wildflowers?

I’ve talked about the importance of native plants previously, and of course, this is the theme of this blog. More on this on the following posts:

Snow squarestem: A bee and butterfly magnet
Maypop, a native butterfly & bee magnet
Doug Tallamy!
An Inch-by-Inch Decoration Feat
One Native Plant = Three Habitat Benefits
Cheer for the Predators in Ecosystem Gardening
Getting Started with Native Plants in Florida

variable dancer waiting for prey on native blue curls

A damselfly, the variable dancer (Argia fumipennis), waiting for prey on Florida native, blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum). Don’t you just love how the tip of its abdomen matches the flower color exactly?

Sooo…

In order to have these beautiful, but fierce, dragonflies and damselflies populate your landscape, you need an appropriate water feature with emergent vegetation and you must not use poisons.  It’s worth the effort because they are excellent predators of other bugs both as larvae and adults.

Little blue heron

A little blue heron looks for fish, frogs & crawdads at the edge of our front pond. A working ecosystem will support not only small predators like the dragonflies, but larger ones as well.

 

Resources:

• The order Odonata explained in University of Florida’s Featured Creatures.

USGS survey with range maps for Odonata for Florida.

• National Wildlife Federation article “Attracting Dragonflies to Your Yard

• Audubon’s suggestions for dragonfly field guides.

© 2012, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Ginny, you are so right, once you start to watch the dragons, they are captivating with their zip and hover tactics, and I love the iridescent colors. I am putting that habitat pond on my Wish List, along with the book!
    Sue Dingwell recently posted..Bear-y Delight

  2. says

    I spent countless hours in the creek in my neighborhood as a kid catching dragonfly and damselfly nymphs and every other kind of vertebrate and invertebrate I could find. I’m thrilled that my yard is constantly filled with dragonflies zooming back and forth. I just wish I could take such beautiful photographs of them!

  3. says

    Hi Ginny, Great post and great advice. Create a wildlife pond and they will come … so many critters. My dragon and damsel mentor was Ken Soltesz, a naturalist from NY state who studied the dragonflies and damselflies of Cape May County, NJ, in 1990 and got us all hooked here in South Jersey. Finally with Ken’s 1991 checklist to our area and the few field guides he directed us to that were available in the early 1990s (Dragonflies of the Florida Peninsula, Bermuda and the Bahamas, by Sidney Dunkle, and Damselflies of the Florida Peninsula …, also by Sidney Dunkle– now out of print, but still excellent field guides and findable as used books) we began to figure them out. Sadly just recently, Ken Soltesz passed away. He taught me so much and I will forever be grateful to him.

    Based on what I learned from Ken and creating wildlife ponds of my own, I’ve taught workshops about “How to Create a WIldlife Pond” for the past 15+ years. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “what about mosquitoes? In answer to that, one of the most important points I stress is “no fish.” Most fish put into ponds are NOT native and prey on dragonfly and damselfly nymphs and the many native species we’re hoping to attract to our ponds. Dragonfly nymphs are highly successful predators, as you mentioned, keeping ahead of mosquito larvae. Fish in a wildlife pond feed on dragonfly nymphs and upset that balance.

    Fun to realize too that a still pond is just fine. It will attract dragonfly and damselfly species that breed in still water. Ponds with moving water will attract species that breed in streams and rivers.

    Thanks for opening our eyes to the pleasures of having a wildlife pond!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Monarch Migration at Cape May — Fall 2012

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