Often known as Devil’s darning needles because of the superstition that they used to sew shut the mouths of lying children, nagging wives and swearing men!
They are sometimes associated with snakes, as in the Welsh name gwas-y-neidr, ‘adder's servant’. Throughout Europe there are names, folk lore and tales of them being part of the Devils work but what is the reality of these harmless, beautiful creatures that live their life between the water and the air.
Most people are aware of dragonflies or their smaller relatives, damselflies as they are often seen flitting busily about their business near a stream or pond. They start their life underwater as a nymph catching their food with extendable jaws, indeed their scientific name Odonata derives from the Greek meaning ‘tooth’ because of its toothed jaws.
In the underwater world they inhabit they are ferocious hunters catching insects and even small fish like sticklebacks. After several years they emerge from the water and transform into the beautiful brightly coloured winged insects that the majority of us recognise. Their acrobatic flight is amazing and they hunt for their prey using their huge compound eyes.
There are 38 known breeding species of dragonflies and damselflies in Great Britain and Ireland. But does this number stay the same? Sadly we are used to hearing reports of declining wildlife numbers and whilst this is true for some dragonfly species it is not the same for all.
Over the last few years, there have been reports of new species arriving from across the continent. Some have been known to be breeding in the south and east of the UK and hopefully are here to stay, for example the southern emerald and willow emerald damselflies and the larger red veined darter. In Wales, if we have south easterly winds during the summer keep a look out for less common species visiting us – it’s possible to see a lesser emperor or even a vagrant emperor both impressive dragonflies.
Whilst it is exciting to keep a look out for the unusual its important to celebrate the more common species that you can see in areas near you. Have a look around the pond in your garden or local park and you might see a flash of powder blue as the male broad bodied chaser does a fly past, defending its territory from airborne invaders. In the same area keep an eye out for the four-spotted chaser and one of the larger dragonflies, southern hawker.
As with all wildlife there’s a habitat for everything and what suits one species does not suit another so there are also dragonflies that prefer flowing water in streams and the most likely dragonfly you’ll see here will be the golden ringed dragonfly proudly displaying its bands of gold: the female has the longest body of any dragonfly in the UK. Rivers have a whole range of species associated with them including beautiful and banded demoiselles and the rarer club-tailed dragonfly which like slower rivers like the Teifi.
Contrary to folklore dragonflies do not sting or bite humans and should be enjoyed for the amazing survivors that they are – after all they have been around since the time of the dinosaurs!