The order Odonata is comprised of two suborders–the Zygoptera or damselflies and the Anisoptera or dragonflies. Odonata means "toothed,” referring to the chewing mandibles of these beneficial insects.
Dragonflies and damselflies, like cockroaches, are two of the oldest insect groups. During prehistoric times, they were as big as hawks. You can find Odonate fossils from Kansas to Siberia. These fascinating creatures had wingspans of almost 30 inches and were the largest insects to ever live. Currently, there are estimated to be more than 4,700 species of Odonata worldwide and Zygoptera accounts for one-third of them. Zygoptera is native to all regions of the world, except Antarctica.
The term “Zygoptera” means "paired wings." Damselflies are also commonly known as bog dancers, damsels, devil’s darning needles and narrow wings. There are four families of damselflies. Calyopterygidae are black winged (some have half black wings) with a red spot at the base. The Coeangrionidae have many body colors but always have clear wings. Lestidae, also known as ‘Spreadwings’, are unlike other damselflies because they perch vertically with their wings open when at rest (similar to a dragonfly). Lestidae usually have a yellow, bronze or metallic green sheen to them. The Protoneuridae are small thread-tailed damselflies inhabiting streams in far south Texas. Interestingly, the largest species in Texas is Archilestes grandis in the family Lestidae. The smallest known damselfly is the Southeast Asian species, Agriocnemis femina.
Damselflies are delicate, weak-flying insects. An adult damselfly has a long slender body, which is green, blue, red, yellow, black, or brown and often brightly colored. The color of some species will change with a variety of environments, fading from bright blue to dull purple responding to cool temperatures or light.
Males of most damselfly species are brighter-colored than females. Both genders have broad, oblong heads with large, widely separated bulging eyes and very short antennae. When resting, damselflies hold its two pairs of four magnificent membranous wings vertically rather than horizontally. Damselfly adults use their hairy covered hind legs to capture prey as they fly. Once caught, they will hold the prey in their legs and devour it by chewing.
Adults are usually seen during the daytime throughout the year. Damselflies are carnivorous insects that live and breed near freshwater habitats. They commonly fly in tandem during mating, as the damselfly's mating pattern is quite unusual.
There are three stages in the damselfly life cycle: egg, naiad (the nymph of a damselfly) and adult. Eggs are either laid in water, on underwater vegetation, or other water-filled cavities such as in bromeliads. Eggs usually hatch within 1-to-3 weeks. Once hatched, the naiad has an elongated body, long legs and three leaf-like appendages or gills on its tail.
Damselflies live for 2 months to 3 years as nymphs, undergoing five to 15 molts as they grow. At this stage, naiads like the adults, are fierce predators. They prey on freshwater organisms, mosquito larvae, various small aquatic insects and other arthropods within their reach. At the last stage, a naiad crawls out of the water and clings to a plant, drying its skin.
After a few minutes sunbathing, the outer skin splits open at the head and the adult damselfly struggles, pulling itself out of its old skin. Its new legs harden, holding onto the plant, its wings slowly expand and then the damselfly flies away from the water. At this time, it is extraordinarily hungry, ravenously eating flies, mosquitoes and other small insects. Once the adult is sexually mature, it returns to an area near water to breed.
The life span of damselflies varies by species. The amount of time that the nymphs spend in the aquatic stage depends on temperature, light and food availability. As an adult, they may survive for a few weeks or for several months. In general though, tropical species spend less time in the aquatic stage and more time in the adult stage than temperate species.
Damselflies are extremely beautiful, beneficial predators because they help control populations of harmful insects. Adults consume large quantities of other insects such as flies, mosquitoes and moths and some eat beetles and caterpillars.
One way to conserve them is by avoiding indiscriminate use of pesticides. Damselflies are also a very important group of insects in stream and pond ecosystems. They are often used as an indicator of whether water is clean or polluted. The quality of the environment can be monitored by damselflies as their presence is strongly affected by different factors such as water flow, pollution and vegetation.
The destruction and alteration of freshwater habitats are the greatest threats to damselfly species worldwide. Without clean water damselflies are unable to breed. An alteration of habitats through climate change may also pose a threat to damselfly populations in the future.
Lastly, contrary to popular belief, adult damselflies do not bite or sting.
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