Ten things you might not know about dragonflies

The Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust helps you learn more about the beautiful and elegant dragonfly

The Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust helps you learn more about the beautiful and elegant dragonfly


The damselfly confusion

Dragonflies belong to the insect order Odonata – meaning ‘toothed jaws’. Within this there are two sub-orders, Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies) – so, damselflies are technically dragonflies.



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Dragonflies have a sharply serrated, extendable lower jaw (labium) which can shoot out and grab prey in a split second.


Sting in the tail?

Sometimes dragonflies seem to curve their tails down as if they are trying to sting, but that is a reflex action. Dragonflies can’t sting you. That wicked looking ‘stinger’ tail is for laying eggs.


Ancient history

Dragonflies have been around since before the dinosaurs. The biggest dragonfly in the world today has a wingspan of around 20cm (7 and a half inches) – but this is nothing compared to prehistoric species. Fossil records show an individual with a wingspan of 75cm, nearly two-and-a-half feet.


Autumn jewels

It varies between species, but dragonflies fly from late spring onwards, with peak flying time in the late summer months. You might wonder why we’re talking about them in October – in fact many will still be flying this month, and sometimes into November if it is warm. These fearsome aerial predators provide a splash of colour at times when wildflowers and butterflies may be winding down. And for the birdwatchers who hang up their binoculars before the big migration events of autumn, they provide another burst of wildlife watching activity to rival any bird flocks. The Dragonfly Trail at Amwell Nature Reserve is a good place to spot them – look out for common darters.


Short adulthood

Larvae can take anything from two to three months to five years to develop. But despite their showy and aggressive nature, the adult stage of these animals’ life cycles lasts a mere fortnight or so; a brief flight of glory before the start of the next generation.


Big appetites

Dragonflies are voracious predators and in the underwater larval stage will eat other insect larvae, crustaceans, worms, snails, leeches, tadpoles and even small fish. During its time as a nymph, the dragonfly catches and eats live prey at every opportunity, moulting a further five to 14 times until it is fully grown.


Sun worshippers

Adult dragonflies are most active between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, when temperatures are highest. In Britain, flight is generally restricted to sunny weather. They are some of the fastest insects in the world!


How many species are there?

There are 17 species of damselfly and 23 resident species of dragonfly in the UK. In Hertfordshire we have 19 species in total – all 19 have been recorded at Amwell Nature Reserve. King’s Meads Nature Reserve near Ware has 18, while 16 different species have been recorded at Fir and Pond Woods Nature Reserve near Potters Bar. A handful of other species occasionally turn up on our shores from continental Europe.


How do you tell the difference?

With some exceptions, damselflies generally rest with wings folded, whereas the stockier, more robust dragonflies rest with wings spread outwards.

Species you are likely to see in Hertfordshire

Banded DemoiselleEmerald DamselflyWhite-legged DamselflyLarge Red DamselflyRed-eyed DamselflySmall Red-eyed DamselflyAzure DamselflyCommon Blue DamselflyBlue-tailed DamselflyMigrant HawkerSouthern HawkerBrown HawkerEmperor DragonflyHairy DragonflyFour-spotted ChaserBroad-bodied ChaserBlack-tailed SkimmerCommon DarterRuddy Darter