Dragonflies on the Plateau

Dragonflies are found throughout the state in a large variety of colors and sizes. North Carolina boasts 187 species of dragonflies and their smaller cousins, damselflies, which are collectively in the insect order Odonata.

Dragonflies are found throughout the Plateau and are generally found near bodies of water.

The scientific name Odonata, comes from “odon,” the Greek root for tooth and refers to this group’s sharply toothed jaws that hint at their predatory habits, said Jason Love, Associate Director at the Highlands Biological Station.

“Macon County boasts a rich number of odonates because the county has a wide array of different habitats,” said Love. “All dragonflies and damselflies start their life in water, but some species prefer ponds and lakes, while others can only be found in small streams, while others are only found in larger rivers. And some, like the aptly named and rare Sphagnum Sprite, are only found in bogs and wetlands.”

Dragonflies are the larger cousins of damselflies.

Paige Englebreksston, Nature Center Education Specialist for the Highlands Biological Foundation said there are three simple ways to tell the difference between dragonflies and damselflies:

  • Dragonflies rest with their wings spread horizontally, like a moth. Damselflies rest with their wings folded together above its abdomen.

A dragonfly rests with it’s wings horizontally.

A damselfly rests with it’s wings folder over its abdomen.

  • A dragonfly’s eyes are large and appear to almost or actually touch each other on its face. A damselfly’s eyes, while also large, appear to bulge out of its head and do not come close to touching.

A dragonfly’s eyes are closer together than a damselfly’s.

A damselfly’s eyes are farther apart than a dragonfly’s.

  • Dragonflies are generally larger and have thick abdomens. In contrast, damselflies are generally smaller and have slender abdomens.

Dragonflies generally have thicker abdomens.

Damselflies generally have think abdomens.

Love said dragonflies and damselflies are voracious predators. Even as nymphs (their larval aquatic phase) they feed on other aquatic insects, such as mosquito larvae, caddisfie larvae, and any other insects they can pull into their mouth.

The highlands Biological Station is a great place to see a variety of dragonflies and damselflies.

Odonate nymphs have a large hinged lower lip or labium that can be thrust forward to capture prey, much like the tongue of a frog. As adults, dragonflies and damselflies are among the top predators in the insect world, picking off flies, mosquitoes, moths, and any other flying insects that they happen to encounter on their patrols.

“Despite their name, dragonflies are no threat to humans,” said Love. “They do not possess a stinger and their jaws are too weak to pierce human flesh. They are among our most beneficial insects, feeding on mosquito larvae as nymphs and adult mosquitoes as flying adults. They are also known to feed on deer flies and horse flies. Dragonfly nymphs cannot live in polluted water, so dragonflies and damselflies are also indicators of good water quality.”

Dragonflies on the Plateau can be found in a wide variety of colors.

Love said Dragonflies typically mate in the spring and summer. Females lay eggs in water and depending on the species, these eggs are laid in a pond, wetland, creek, or river. The eggs hatch after 2 weeks or more. The aquatic nymphs of some species spend up to 4 years in water before transforming into adults. An adult lives a short time, typically a month to a few months.

A dragonfly resting with its wings spread.

The best time to see dragonflies is on warmer days throughout the year. Some species of adults can only be found in early spring, others in late summer, and still others can be found from spring to fall.

Englebreksston said HBS is a great place to see dragonflies and damselflies of all kinds.

“Look around the grasses and lily pads for everything from delicate damseflies to brilliantly colored dragonflies taking a break from their aerial acrobatics. Adult dragonflies can eat anywhere from thirty to hundreds of mosquitos in a day. I love to see the ones in my area zooming around near dusk, and I always hope that they’re snapping up more mosquitos!”

Dragonflies eat mosquitos and deerflies.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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