What is the difference between dragonflies and damselflies? And other facts

Dragonfly
Look out for dragonflies and damselflies resting on plants (Photo: Ste Dodd/WTML)

Take a stroll along a river bank on a sunny day, or relax by a pond, and look out for flashes of electric blue or iridescent emerald green as dragonflies and damselflies dart across the surface of the water. They’ll start to die off once the weather gets cooler so now’s the time to become a dragonfly and damselfly expert!

Dragonfly or damselfly?

The UK has 25 species of dragonfly and 17 species of damselfly. They all have long, thin bodies and two sets of wings, and they come in lots of different colours – they’re not all as bright as jewels.

There are few easy ways to tell if you’re looking at a dragonfly or damselfly:

  • Take a close look at its eyes. If the eyes are touching in the middle of its head, it’s a dragonfly, but if they’re separate, it’s a damselfly.
  • Dragonflies keep their wings open when they’re resting, but damselflies fold them on top of their bodies.
  • Dragonflies have a much stronger, direct flight – if you see one a long way from water, it’s most likely a dragonfly. Damselflies are more fluttery.
  • Dragonflies tend to be larger and can sometimes have quite chunky bodies, while damselflies are smaller with thinner bodies.

Have a look at our dragonflies and damselflies ID for some pictures to help you tell them apart.

Image with a dragonfly to the left and damselfly to the right, showing the difference in body shape, wings and eyes.
Look out for eyes and wings when you're working out if what you see is a dragonfly (pictured left) or damselfly (pictured right). (Photo: WTML)

Where do dragonflies and damselflies live?

Dragonflies and damselflies breed near water so you’re most likely to spot them around streams and ponds. But dragonflies can fly quite a long way so you may see them in woodlands, fields and along hedgerows too.

What do dragonflies and damselflies eat?

They feed other flying insects, such as moths, midges and butterflies. They sometimes eat other smaller dragonflies or damselflies too! They’re very good at catching prey in mid-flight using their legs.

Dragonfly larvae, known as nymphs, have special mouthparts which can catch prey in the blink of an eye! Their labium (lower lip) is extendable – it shoots out, grabs an unsuspecting victim, and stuffs it into its mouth in milliseconds! Young nymphs eat small aquatic insects but, as they grow larger, they also hunt for tadpoles and small fish.

A green dragonfly resting on grass.
Dragonflies usually have thicker bodies than damselflies. (Photo: John Duncan/WTML)

The dragonfly and damselfly life cycle

Females lay hundreds of eggs, either on plants or in the water. The eggs hatch into larvae (also called nymphs) in a few weeks. These then live in the water for up to two years, feeding on insects. When they are almost mature, they start to breathe air. They then climb up a plant before the skin splits open to reveal a beautiful dragonfly or damselfly. It lives for anything from a couple of weeks to a few months.

Did you know?

  • Some types of dragonfly, such as the ‘emperor’ or ‘brown hawker’ can be up to 8cm long, and fly at up to 30mph!
  • Dragonflies and damselflies can rotate their heads through almost 360◦ so they can see all around them.
  • Dragonfly nymphs have their own form of jet propulsion. They can squirt water out of their bottoms with enough force to shoot through the water! This helps them escape from hungry predators.
  • According to folklore, if you fell asleep by a river or pond, damselflies would use their long, thin bodies to sew your eyelids shut!
Image of a blue damselfly resting on a leaf.
Look out for the closed wings, thin bodies and separated eyes of damselflies. (Photo: Colin Boyd/WTML)

Discover more

Become a family of Nature Detectives to carry on learning more about our wonderful woods and the creatures who live in them, all while supporting out native woodland!

Explore all year round with seasonal activity packs which are stuffed with fab facts, awesome how-tos and fun activities.

If you see a dragonfly or damselfly resting on a plant, try to get a photo and share it on our Facebook page, or on Instagram or Twitter using #NatureDetectives. You can then challenge other Nature Detectives to identify it!

Tell us all about the dragonflies you've spotted!

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