In search of dragonflies and damselflies in Hertfordshire

Emperor dragonfly (photo: Rebell, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Emperor dragonfly (photo: Rebell, Getty Images/iStockphoto) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

July is the perfect time to go in search of Herts’ most colourful residents – dragonflies and damselflies, writes Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust senior reserves officer Jenny Sherwen

Female road-bodied chaser - it has a characteristically broad and flattened abdomen (photo: David St

Female road-bodied chaser - it has a characteristically broad and flattened abdomen (photo: David Strydom, Getty Images/Hemera) - Credit: Getty Images/Hemera

Dragonflies have been around for at least 300 million years – predating dinosaurs. Fossil records show that these prehistoric dragonflies were giants, with wingspans up to nearly two and a half feet. Thankfully (thinking of a having a picnic by a lake or river here), today’s dragonflies are significantly smaller and the biggest dragonfly in the world today has a wingspan of around seven and a half inches.

Dragonflies belong to the insect order Odonata, meaning ‘toothed jaws’. Within this order there are two sub-orders, Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies). There are easy ways to tell the two apart when you’re out and about enjoying the British summer in the county. The easiest way to tell at a glance which is which is to check the position of the wings at rest – dragonflies rest with their wings open while damselflies rest with them closed. When flying dragonflies have a strong flight while damselfly flight is weaker with more of a flutter. If you are lucky enough to get up close to either insect, then check the eyes – dragonflies’ touch at the top of the head. Despite traditional nicknames like ‘Devil’s darning needles’ or ‘horse stingers’, dragonflies and damselflies do not sting.

Where to see them

Male banded demoiselle (photo: Ian Dyball, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Male banded demoiselle (photo: Ian Dyball, Getty Images/iStockphoto) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

There are more than 5,000 types of dragonfly in the world. Britain has 38 native species, and of these, 19 can be found in Hertfordshire. We are lucky to have many of these beautiful creatures at many of Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves.

Dragonflies and damselflies are most visible over the warm summer months but can still be spotted as late as November. Adult dragonflies are most active between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, when temperatures are at their highest. Dragonflies are cold-blooded and must warm themselves before flying, so in Britain flight is generally restricted to sunny weather.

Adult dragonflies and damselflies feed on small insects. Both groups hunt for their food on the wing – hovering, darting and pursuing their quarry at amazing speed. Dragonflies are some of the fastest insects in the world and can reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. Head towards open water to spot them in full-speed action.

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The trust’s Amwell Nature Reserve near Ware is the top site for dragonflies and damselflies in Hertfordshire, with all 19 Herts species being recorded here. The Dragonfly Trail on the reserve is open from May to October and offers fantastic opportunities to see these creatures up close. Boardwalks stretch out over reedbeds, pools and ditches and a circular walk provides the chance to see stunning orchids at close proximity too.

King’s Mead Nature Reserve, also near Ware, comes a close second for places to spot dragonflies and damselflies, with 18 species spotted through the summer months, including the scarce hairy dragonfly.

Head to Stocker’s Lake in Rickmansworth and keep an eye on open areas at this former gravel pit. Here you will see thousands of damselflies over the lake as well as dragonflies such as the emperor and broad-bodied chaser.

Take a walk through the dappled woodland of Fir and Ponds Wood to the east of Potters Bar, and meander past the reserve’s ponds where 16 species of dragon and damselfly have been recorded.

Hertford Heath near the county town is another great place to see dragonflies. Sit quietly by the end of the ponds in the middle of a still summer‘s day and you’re sure to spot colourful dragonflies such as the emperor and common darter.

Lifecycle of a dragonfly

• Dragonfly eggs are usually laid on plants or directly into the water in ponds, rivers or lakes. The eggs transform into larvae which may spend years living below water.

• Larvae have powerful jaws which they can extend to catch their prey, including small fish, tadpoles and other aquatic insects.

• Once fully developed, the larvae emerge from the water and cling to a nearby reed or plant stem where the transformation into their winged, adult form takes place.

• A few days after transforming, they develop their bright colours and seek a mate to breed with. By the end of September most adults will be dead, although in some milder winters, dragonflies have been spotted as late as December in Hertfordshire.

Join Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust on July 29 and 30 at Panshanger Park, Hertford for expert dragonfly walks at the 2017 HMWT Festival of Wildlife in association with Herts Natural History Society. The festival, hosted by Tarmac, celebrates the rich diversity of wildlife in Herts and Middlesex, offering the opportunity to learn about dragonflies and much more.

Keep an eye on for other upcoming dragonfly and damselfly events.