Dragonflies and damselflies belong to an order of insects known by the scientific name of Odonata. They are brilliantly coloured insects and they fly above inland water-ways and temporary ponds in summer. The dragonfly's life cycle begins when a female lays its eggs on pond weeds. The eggs hatch into small aquatic larvae. The larvae may continue to live in water for several years. They look very different from the adult insects. Each larva steadily grows larger, and finally crawls out of the water. It sheds its skin to reveal a new adult dragonfly.

There are about 5,500 species of odonates in the world. 2500 of these are damselflies, divided among 20 families, the remaining 2700 species are dragonflies divided into 8 families.


Emperor Dragonfly

The Emperor Dragonfly discussed by Chris Wilson and Alan McGuire.

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  and damselflies are to be found throughout the world with the exception of the Antarctica and some Arctic islands. There are no resident species at all in Iceland, although occasionally migrants from North Africa are recorded there, but they are most abundant and diverse in tropical regions.

Distinctive features

Adult odonates can be distinguished from other insects by their long, ten-segmented abdomens, their two pairs of large wings with a dense network of fine veins, and their large eyes and short antennae. Dragonflies and damselflies are active during the day, especially on hot summer days, and many species are fast and agile in flight.

All odonates are fierce predators, in fact the scientific name for the species is derived from the Greek word odon meaning 'tooth', and refers to the strongly toothed jaws that the 'flies' possess.

Studying Dragonflies

The first step in studying dragonflies and damselflies is to be able to identify them correctly. Nowadays we are fortunate to have many well written field guides and of course the internet acts as a great source of information on many subjects including the natural world.

With a little skill, practice and patience, a person can learn to recognize most species when they are perched or even in flight. A pair of 'close focusing' binoculars are very useful for this. It is however, sometimes necessary to confirm identification by examining the specimen in the hand and a good butterfly net is essential for this task. The net should be lightweight, one to three meters long with an extendable pole and have a deep net bag. Dragonflies can be difficult to catch as they fly very fast and are very wary of anyone approaching. Sudden movements should be avoided and try not to cast a shadow over your quarry.

Dragonflies in folklore

In Japanese culture, dragonflies are regarded as symbols of courage, strength, victory and happiness, and they sometimes have a religious significance, being associated with the visitation of spirits to the home. An old Japanese name for Japan, Akitsu shima , given to the country by its first emperor, means 'Island of the Dragonflies'.

In European tradition, on the other hand, dragonflies are considered more threatening and are often seen as associates of the devil. This is reflected in some of the traditional English names for dragonflies such as 'devil's darning needles' and 'devil's riding horses'.

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