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Dragonflies and damselflies

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the Odonata order of insects. They are attractive winged organisms that can be seen in summer.

Both spend a large part of their lives underwater, first as eggs and then as larvae or nymphs. They are predatory and prey on other invertebrates. As they grow they shed their skin several times. Their development can take one or two years or more. Once ready, the nymphs climb out of the water and emerge from their larval skin as young adults.

Initially, the young flyers are pale, but they sexually mature into brightly coloured adults. Mating can take place on the ground or in the air. The female then lays the next generation of eggs in or by water. Dragonfly adults can live for a couple of months and damselflies for a couple of weeks, but most die before this.

Woodland ponds are important for dragonfly and damselfly reproduction and larvae. Hedgerows and woodland clearings also offer sheltered areas where the adults can breed and hunt flying insects.

What is the difference between dragonflies and damselflies?

Although they are similar, it is fairly easy to tell the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly:

Dragonflies are generally larger with eyes that usually touch at a point. Their four wings are mostly made up of two shorter hind wings and two longer fore wings. They rest with their wings held out from their bodies. As they are such strong flyers they can be found long distances from water. Dragonfly nymphs have no external gills at the end of their abdomen.

Damselflies are smaller with separated eyes. They have four more equally sized wings that are held along the body when at rest. Being weaker flyers, they tend to stay close to their water habitats. Damselfly nymphs have external gills at the end of the abdomen.


In prehistoric times when oxygen levels were much higher, giant dragonflies roamed the land. They were around the size of a large eagle and were the largest flying insect that has ever lived. Today’s dragonflies are much smaller but still impressive insects. Here are a few you may see in and around woods:

Southern hawker and brown hawker are large dragonflies. They are often found near woodland and can be seen in summer ‘hawking’ along rides. Others include common hawker and migrant hawker that hunts along hedgerows and woodland edges.

Downy emerald favours ponds in or close to native woodland. Northern emeralds like Scottish pinewoods and moors with scattered trees. Golden-ringed dragonfly can be found heathland habitats, so too can the keeled skimmer.

White-faced darters need scrub or woodland and ruddy darters like weedy ponds in woods. Common darter can often be found resting on vegetation along woodland rides.


In the UK, damselflies are generally the smaller cousins of dragonflies. But the helicopter damselfly in Central America is the largest living odonate, with a wingspan of 19 cm. Some damselflies you can see in woods include:

Common blue damselfly is often the most abundant British species; large red is also common. Willow emeralds need water with overhanging trees and will lay their eggs in the bark. Azure and blue-tailed damselflies can be found along woodland rides and hedgerows, away from their breeding sites.

Many more, like the beautiful demoiselle and white-legged damselfly, may be found near water bodies in and around woods.