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British dragonflies: all about larvae, wings and lifecycle

Long before the dinosaurs walked the earth there were dragonflies in the sky. They were some of the first winged insects to evolve, around 300 million years ago. Back then oxygen levels were much higher allowing giant dragonflies to evolve, with wingspans like eagles.

Dragonflies and damselflies are part of the Odonata order, meaning toothed ones. This is because they’re fearsome predators of flying insects like gnats, mosquitos and other small bugs.

Don’t worry they don’t bite us, they’re completely harmless. They’re actually really helpful for us humans, as they hunt all the pesky insects that bother us.

There are 57 species of Odonata in the UK: 36 dragonflies (Anisoptera) and 21 damselflies (Zygoptera).

Large hawker dragonfly at Foxley Wood (Photo: Ross Coupland)
Large hawker dragonfly at Foxley Wood (Photo: Ross Coupland)

Dragonfly larvae

Dragonflies spend most of their lives as nymphs. Unlike typical larvae that moult only once, like butterflies, nymphs go through a more gradual change (metamorphosis) into adults.

The nymphs look like mini adults without wings. You’re unlikely to spot them as they live underwater. 

All dragonfly nymphs have six legs, wing-sheaths, and a hinged jaw that can shoot out in an instant to catch prey. Unlike adult dragonflies, nymphs aren’t brightly coloured.

They emerge from their eggs tiny and tadpole-like. They spend their larval period eating as much as they can, growing and moulting. They shed their skins 5-14 times before they are ready to leave the water.

Many are green or brown, so they are camouflaged from predators.

Dragonfly wings

Broad-bodied chaser (Photo: WTPL)
Broad-bodied chaser (Photo: WTPL)

Few species can match the dragonfly’s spectacular flying ability. With a top speed of 30mph, dragonflies are one of the fastest insects in the UK.

They have four long wings which they can beat together, or separately, allowing them to hover in midair, fly in any direction and speed up quickly. Think of them as an ‘attack helicopter’ for small flying insects, moving in on their prey from any direction. Their large eyes give them fantastic vision, helping them hawk their prey.

Dragonflies and damselflies look similar. The easiest way to tell them apart is that dragonflies are large and robust whereas damselflies are longer and thinner. Also, take a look at the wing position when they are at rest – dragonflies hold their wings out from their body, whereas damselflies tend to hold them alongside their body. Read more about their differences here.

Dragonfly lifecycle

Mating pair of common darter dragonflies (Photo: WTPL)
Mating pair of common darter dragonflies (Photo: WTPL)

There are three stages of the dragonfly life cycle, the egg, the nymph, and the adult dragonfly.

You might see a dragonfly dipping half their body into water. This is a female dragonfly laying her eggs. Eggs take about to week to hatch into nymphs.

Once nymphs are fully grown they crawl out of the water and shed one final time. They emerge as young dragonflies, then wait for an hour or so until their wings harden and they can fly. Until their wings harden they are extremely vulnerable to predators.

They spend about a week feeding away from the water, becoming more colourful as they reach adulthood.

When mature, they move back to the water to breed. You can easily spot a mating pair by the heart shaped ‘wheel formation’ of mating pairs. After breeding, the female heads to water to lay her eggs and sometimes the male follows, protecting her until the eggs have been laid.

British dragonflies you can spot near woodland

Male southern hawker dragonfly (Photo: Nick Brischuk)
Male southern hawker dragonfly (Photo: Nick Brischuk)

Southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea)

  • Found in woodland and garden ponds. Males are black with bright green markings and blue strips at the tip of the abdomen. Females are chocolate brown with green/yellow patterns. Widespread and inquisitive, they often approach people.
  • Size: 70-73mm
  • Flying season: July – October
Female emperor dragonfly (Photo: John Duncan/WTPL)
Female emperor dragonfly (Photo: John Duncan/WTPL)

Emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator)

  • Has the largest wingspan of any British dragonfly, about 10.5cm. Males have a bright blue abdomen while females have green abdomens. Both have a black central line. You can usually spot them near lakes and ponds as well as along paths, hedgerows and meadows.
  • Size: 76-78mm
  • Flying season: late May – early September
Brown hawker dragonfly laying eggs (Photo: Ann Jacobs)
Brown hawker dragonfly laying eggs (Photo: Ann Jacobs)

Brown hawker (Aeshna grandis)

  • One of the larger dragonflies in the UK, they’re brown with thick yellow strips on their sides. Males also have small blue markings. Found hawking woodland rides for prey well into the evening.
  • Size:73-74mm
  • Flying season: late June – early October
Common darter dragonfly (Photo: WTPL)
Common darter dragonfly (Photo: WTPL)

Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum)

  • Males are orange-red. Females are yellow or light brown with black darts. Both have a distinctive yellow stripe on the legs and are most often found near bodies of water. Look out for them resting on tops of plants in woodland rides.
  • Size: 37-41mm
  • Flying season: mid June – late October
Golden-ringed dragonfly on a perch vibrating its wing muscles before taking flight. (Photo: WTPL)
Golden-ringed dragonfly on a perch vibrating its wing muscles before taking flight. (Photo: WTPL)

Golden-ringed (Cordulegaster boltonii)

  • Has the longest body of all the British dragonflies, up to 8.6cm. They’re black with yellow rings along the length of the abdomen. The female is the longer of the sexes. They breed in acidic rivers and streams. You can spot them roaming rivers, heathlands and woodland rides.
  • Size: 74-86mm
  • Flying season: May to September

Visit our woods and see if you can spot different dragonflies

Explore a wood near you