Dragons and Damsels

It is at this time of year that we really appreciate the diversity of our ponds. As you sit by one on a summers day you should see an incredible war happening above the waters surface. Male dragonflies and damselflies will be vying for the females' attention whilst at the same time seeing off rivals and patrolling their patch. (Not all dragonflies use ponds with some using streams and rivers - but the majority will take advantage of a pond.)

Mating azure damselflies damselflies L Maiden

Mating azure damselflies damselflies L Maiden

The sunshine encourages the dragonflies and damselflies to emerge (they will only fly on sunny, calm days) and you may see hundreds in the air at a time. From sharp bright slivers of blue of azure damselflies, to the Hercules of the pond the emperor dragonfly.

These insects belong to an order called Odonata (from the Greek - toothed jaw). They form two distinct sub species, dragonflies and damselflies. All of them have two pairs of densely veined wings and a long ten segmented body, which comes in the brightest of hues from blues to golds.

There are about 5,500 Odonata species in the world and around 52 have been identified in Britain, although we are noticing more migrant species as our climate changes.

At this time of year you may notice many of the dragonflies and damselflies dipping their abdomens in the water of the pond, these are the females and they have been mated and are laying their eggs in the water. The eggs laid this early on in the season will usually hatch in a few days, but those which are laid later in the year may delay hatching until the following spring.

The nymphs of Odonata are the sharks of the pond, they patrol the water eating anything they encounter from water fleas to tadpoles and even small fish. The smaller species will take a year to develop, emerging the following spring and summer to breed, however some of the larger species will take two to five years before they emerge from the pond and join in the merry dance.

Emerging southern hawker and excuvia L MaidenTheir adult phase is very short lived, once they crawl up the stem in their nymph form and split out to emerge into their fairy like state they may only live a couple of weeks at most a couple of months. 

This adult existence is the one that all of us have the opportunity to easily observe. Take a seat by any pond on a sunny day and wait for them to arrive. What you will see the majority of the times are the males of the species as they patrol, squabble, feed, fight, rest on leaves or pursue.

Damselflies are the more placid of the species, the males are less territorial with elaborate mating displays showing off their wings and landing on the water. Dragonflies, especially emperors, are definitely the more violent, the clashes of two males can be heard as they headbutt and brawl their way into control of their territory.

The females tend not to be as brightly coloured as the males (although the female broad bodied chasers are a shimmering gold colour) and will arrive discreetly at the pond, only to be pounced on by the males who hold them in a mating clinch. In some species mating can be over in a matter of seconds whilst in others they may remain coupled for a couple of hours whilst hiding in the vegetation.

The female dragonfly's ovipositor is blade like and can cut through plant stems where she can lay an egg inserted into the stem, sometimes a female will walk backwards down the stem, ovipositing as she goes until she is fully submerged, she is able to trap a bubble of air between her wings and stay under water for 30 minutes or so. Throughout the male will usually maintain his grip upon her.

Chaser and darter dragonflies will usually stroke the water with their ovipositors, rapidly scattering their eggs in the water, the males will usually hover protectively over the females until she has finished washing the eggs off her ovipositor.

To enjoy these wonderful creatures in your own back garden only requires you to put in a pond (without ornamental fish), we have some guidance on how to create a perfect environment for these wonderful creatures (and for many other species).

If you cannot put a pond into your own back garden then listed below are some reserves which are particularly good for seeing dragonflies and damselflies.

Glamorgan: Parc Slip Nature Reserve - Pwll Waun Cynon - Broad Pool - Killay Marsh - Red Jacket Fen

Carmarthenshire: Ffrwd Farm Mire - Talley Lakes

Ceredigion: Cors Ian - Llyn Eiddwen  - Llyn Fanod - Rhos Glyn-yr-Helyg

Pembrokeshire: Dowrog Common - Goodwick Moor - Llangloffan Fen - Teifi Marshes - Westfield Pill

All of the dragonflies and damselflies below were sighted in and around a newly dug pond. To date 12 species have been counted (although only 10 have been photographed - all photos by L Maiden unless otherwise stated).