Encouraging Dragonflies and Damselflies to your Garden

Although gardening for wildlife is now most definitely a mainstream activity and what was once seen as a rather quirky pastime is now a regular feature in almost all gardening magazines and television programmes, there is still a tendency for many of us to concentrate on those creatures that we see as either beneficial to the gardener (bees, ladybirds and slug devouring ground beetles for instance), or those that are regarded as beautiful – butterflies, blue tits or song thrushes.  Many gardeners are still very selective about the creatures they find in their plot and that’s fine - even the smallest concession to accommodating wildlife is worthwhile.  But I believe that wildlife gardening should be about much more than this.  It should embrace the idea that any area where we grow plants, whether for food or for aesthetic reasons, has a life of its own, much of which we know very little about. Every kind of creature is likely to make a home in ‘your’ garden area and every one of those creatures has a role to play in your garden ecosystem.

For some gardeners dragonflies and damselflies may well fall into the category of ‘not very useful’ creatures, and indeed there are many people who are positively afraid of these insects – they certainly do have a rather fierce look about them.  Their darting flight and seemingly aggressive nature makes them appear dangerous and possibly not the kind of wildlife we want to encourage!  But a closer look at these insects, their life cycles and habits could convince you that there is more to the ‘Devil’s Darning Needle’ as they were once known, than you previously imagined.  Furthermore they are predators of the first magnitude and do perform a very useful role in the garden.  By learning a little more about them, we can hopefully appreciate them as garden inhabitants of great beauty and grace.  Around forty species of these insects, which are members of the order Odonata, breed in the UK and several more visit us as migrants each year.  Some species occur in specific habitats such as boggy ponds in moorland locations, or in slow flowing rivers.  These species are unlikely to be attracted to our garden ponds, but others, particularly those that specialise in colonising new water, are likely to appear quickly where a new aquatic habitat has been created, whether in city or countryside. 

Adult dragonflies and damselflies spend time looking for new areas of water in which to lay their eggs, searching these habitats out from high above ground level.  Their large compound eyes mean they have excellent vision, both for locating their prey and for finding new territory for egg laying.  They are also equipped with fierce jaws and are able to catch their prey with their legs, carrying the unfortunate insect off to a favourite perch before devouring it. 

Both dragonflies and damselflies use these same tactics to hunt and kill their prey, but telling these two groups apart can be difficult.  The general idea that damselflies are the smaller of the two is not much help to the amateur dragonfly watcher, and indeed is not strictly correct.  One useful identification pointer is most damselfly species at rest will sit with their wings folded back along their bodies, while dragonflies have their wings open at right angles to their body.  Identification of actual species is difficult for most of us, not least because many species are fast and furious flyers!  Seeing one of these insects close up and stationary is an unusual occurrence, and it is worth using a small digital camera if you wish to get to know this group of insects a little better.  A really good identification guide (see recommended books below) will aid rather than confuse you.  Important features to look out for are the colour of the abdomen, thorax, eyes and legs, plus the patterns of the veining on the wings.  Another useful aid to identification, as with butterflies, is timing and location, although the fact that males, females and newly emerged adults of the same species can all look very different throws a bit of confusion into the mix!  However, if you have mastered the identification of butterflies, these seemingly bewildering insects should not be too difficult.  But most of us may not care less about the finer details of identification – often it is just enough to appreciate a beautiful creature in the garden, and understand a little about its life cycle and habits. 

Attracting them and catering for their needs provides enough satisfaction.  We all know that water is essential if you expect dragonflies and damselflies to set up home and breed, but even if you have no water these insects are likely to visit your garden to search for prey if there is a good breeding pond somewhere nearby.  Areas of long grass are often used for hunting or ‘hawking’ for food, so if you are interested in dragonflies but would prefer not to have a pond in your garden, a meadow may well attract several different species.  The important factor is that prey should be available in the form of small winged insects and if you are gardening organically the presence of lots of juicy flies, wasps and occasional butterflies is inevitable. 

If you already have a pond you may well have come across the fearsome looking dragonfly larvae that lurk in the mud at the bottom.  These remarkable creatures may spend up to five years in this state depending upon the species, although a year or two is more usual.  The larvae feed on a variety of pond creatures including tadpoles and small fish, water snails and anything else they can get their jaws around.  When they have reached a suitable size and conditions are warm enough, the larvae move to shallow water to prepare for their final moult.  Unlike butterflies and moths they change directly from larvae to adult winged insects, with no pupal stage in between.  They climb out of the water aided by the stems of plants such as rushes and reeds, and shed their larval skin to reveal the beautiful insect within. These young dragonflies or ‘tenerals’ are pale in hue, their true colours appearing over the next few days as they mature.  Mating takes place on the wing and egg laying females can often be seen dipping their abdomens into water as the eggs are released. 

Attracting dragonflies and damselflies to your garden is relatively simple.  Any pond, well stocked with a good range of plants, especially oxygenators and emergent plants such as stout rushes and reeds, will provide a good breeding ground for several species.  Some, including the huge Emperor Dragonfly, prefers a large pond with deep water areas, but smaller species including the Large Red Damselfly, one of our commonest damselflies, will quickly set up home in a small new garden pond.  Often the first explorer to new territory is the Broad Bodied Chaser. This lovely insect is a good species to get to know.  The ‘chasers’ are a group of dragonflies with, as the name suggests, broad rather flat bodies, quite unlike our common perception of the Devil’s Darning Needle’ or ‘Horse Stinger’ of country lore.  The male’s body is pale blue while the female is yellow.  This species conveniently sits around on a prominent perch, looking for prey and giving us the opportunity to examine it at close quarters.  Tall plants such as purple loosestrife around a wildlife pond are important for dragonflies as they make perfect perches for this hunting behaviour.  Another early coloniser of the garden pond is the Southern Hawker.  This is an insect with the more ’typical’ dragonfly shape – a long narrow body with bands of colour.  The males are striped with black and green while the females are brown and green.  This insect is quite large – about 7 cms in length with a wingspan of 10 cms.  It moves quickly and can appear quite fearsome as it ‘hawks’ back and forth across the garden looking for a juicy morsel.

There are many more species that will make a home in your garden if there is a suitable habitat and insect prey.  Combine your pond with a meadow area to provide the conditions these efficient predators need and there is no doubt you will soon be scratching your head as you try to tell your dragons from your damsels! 

Learn more…

The British Dragonfly Society has a website at www.british-dragonflies.org.uk

Useful books…

Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Steve Brooks, Steve Cham and Richard Lewington

Britain’s Dragonflies by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swalsh published by Wildguides


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017