I think damselflies are an underappreciated group of insects. They’re often described (including by me, if I’m being honest) as weaker-flying versions of dragonflies, which seems unfair and not very nice. Sure they’re related to dragonflies, but damselflies should be judged on their own merits. Maybe dragonflies should be described as bigger and bulkier versions of damselflies!
Anatomically speaking, there are two ways I can separate most damselflies from most dragonflies. First, damselflies have eyes that are more widely spaced (almost like hammerhead sharks) and smaller, relative to their head, than those of dragonflies. Second, they usually fold their wings behind them at rest, whereas dragonflies keep their wings out to side like an airplane.
Damselflies might be weaker fliers than dragonflies, but they’re still very effective aerial predators. Earlier this year, I was walking along the pond at our family prairie and watching thousands of small white moths that had recently emerged. As I was walking, I saw a hovering damselfly dart quickly to the side and grab one of the moths out of the air (see photo below). I was impressed with the quickness employed by the damselfly – pretty good for a ‘weak flyer’.
Of course, the fact that damselflies tend to fly less fast and far is helpful for me as a photographer. Dragonflies can be really difficult to creep close to unless they’re cold and covered in dew. Sometimes, I can get lucky and find one that’s defending a territory strongly enough that I can post up near a perch and wait for it to circle back around after I flush it. Otherwise, dragonflies don’t usually want me close to them, and if they fly, they can go a long way very quickly.
Damselflies are a little easier to stalk. They often fly away upon my initial approach (that’s often how I notice them in the first place) but if I’m slow and careful on my next approach, I can often get close enough to photograph them. Even if they fly several times, they don’t tend to fly very far, so I can stay on my knees and kind of waddle through the grass to where they landed. Every year, I manage to get new photographs of damselflies, always trying to find new angles or perspectives to use.
Male damselflies try to entice females to mate by performing courtship rituals that usually involve him hovering in front of her and trying to show off his best physical traits (sound familiar?). If the damselflies do mate, they use what’s often called a ‘wheel’ position, in which the male attaches the tip of his abdomen right behind the head of the female with special appendages. The female, in turn, brings the tip of her abdomen up to a spot just behind the male’s thorax where he previously deposited a packet of sperm. If disturbed while mating, they can fly off while maintaining that same joined position, which – again – seems pretty impressive. After mating, the male often stays connected to the female while she lays eggs. That helps him ensure that no other males fertilize her eggs.
Like dragonflies, damselfly nymphs are aquatic predators. They feed on mosquito larvae and other small creatures they find underwater. Damselfly nymphs have three gill appendages on the tip of their abdomen, through which they breathe underwater. Anyone who has done any dip-netting in ponds or wetlands has probably seen lots of those ‘three-tailed’ little nymphs.
There’s just something about a damselfly face that’s hard to resist. I often take photos of damselflies from the side so I can capture the patterns on their wings and body for identification purposes. But if I find one that’s accommodating, I usually try to carefully swing around to the front and get a face-to-face perspective. Knowing that I have to wait until spring to see my next damselfly makes the impending winter months seem just that much longer…