Adult damselflies have very slender, elongated abdomens, delicate bodies, and 2 pairs of wings that are typically held together over the body. The wings are membranous and elaborately veined. The hindwing is about the same size and shape as the forewing. The eyes are compound, large, but usually do not touch. The antennae are short. The 6 legs are poor for walking but good for perching. Many damselflies have brilliant, gemlike colors.
Larvae (nymphs) are aquatic, slender, usually drab insects with 6 legs and with small wing buds on the back of the thorax. The 3 gills are leaflike and positioned like a 3-part tail at the tip of the abdomen (unlike the gills of dragonflies, which are hidden within the tip of the abdomen).
To distinguish among the many types of damselflies, one must usually examine details of wing vein patterns as well as colors and markings on wings and body. Males and females often have different colors and markings.
Key identifiers of adult damselflies:
- Slender, long, delicate body.
- Color often brilliant, gemlike.
- Two pairs of long, membranous, finely veined wings.
- Wings typically held together, above the body.
- Hindwing similar to forewing in size and shape.
- Eyes large, compound, usually do not touch.
- Antennae short.
- Often found near water.
Adult length: from 1 to 2½ inches (varies with species).
Habitat and Conservation
Damselfly nymphs are common residents of marshes, ponds, lakes, streams, and other aquatic habitats. They crawl among submerged plants and rocks and along the bottoms, searching for prey. They can also swim, by undulating their bodies. Because the larvae are aquatic and the eggs are laid in the water, adult damselflies ordinarily are not found far from water. Their fast flight, however, can take them many places. Adults are usually seen in the warmest parts of the year.
As with dragonflies, the legs of damselflies are held in a basket shape during flight, which is perfect for grasping mosquitoes and other small flying insects. The hunting of the nymphs is more bizarre; they are typically lie-in-wait predators resting quietly on the substrate. When a potential meal swims or walks near, the nymph’s extendable jaws flash outward to snatch and draw in the food, which can be any aquatic animal smaller than itself.
Six Missouri damselflies are species of conservation concern and thus are vulnerable to becoming extirpated from our state: the eastern red damsel (Amphiagrion saucium), Paiute dancer (Argia alberta), sphagnum sprite (Nehalennia gracilis), sedge sprite (N. irene), duckweed firetail (Telebasis byersi), and desert firetail (T. salva).
Males commonly perch on branches or other objects, patrolling their territories, driving away rival males, and attempting to mate with females. Mating pairs usually fly in tandem. The female usually flies low over the water, depositing eggs directly on the surface. Larvae (nymphs) undergo several molts as they grow. When ready, they crawl out of the water to a safe place, shed their skin, and emerge as a winged adult.
Anyone who dislikes mosquitoes can appreciate damselflies! Damselflies are also admired for their beautiful forms, and photographers love to capture their images.
It should be noted that damselflies cannot sting. When handled, they might try to bite, but it is merely a pinch.
Most of a damselfly’s life is spent as a nymph. Some species live for five years underwater before becoming adults. They and the adult forms are important predators of mosquitoes, midges, and other small insects. The nymphs are important food for fish and other aquatic insectivores. Swallows, flycatchers, and other birds circle above ponds, hunting the adults. Unlucky adult damselflies, in the process of laying eggs on the water surface, may be gobbled by a fish.
On very hot, sunny days, adult damselflies and dragonflies often rest in an "obelisk posture," which looks something like a handstand, with the abdomen tip upraised to point at the sun. This minimizes solar exposure and helps regulate the insect's body temperature.