ShareThis Page

Backyard water spots big draw for dragonflies

Jessica Walliser
| Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, 6:17 p.m.
Widow Skimmer Dragonfly
Jessica Walliser
Widow Skimmer Dragonfly

Water features have become quite popular among backyard gardeners in recent years and for good reason. They fill the garden with the relaxing sound of moving water, lure birds and increase the diversity of flora and fauna by creating a new habitat.

One of the beneficial insects often drawn to water features is the dragonfly and its close relative, the damselfly. There are more than 425 species of these valuable insects in North America, all in the Order Odonata, and all serving to help control insect pests.

Dragonflies are among the fastest fliers in the insect world. They are swift and agile aviators and can turn on a dime, and they are predators as both adults and nymphs. As generalist predators, the adults feed on mosquitoes, flies, bees, ants, moths, wasps and pretty much anything else they can nab midflight. They then find a perch and consume their victim using the teeth in their lower jaw.

Both dragon- and damselflies have two pairs of translucent wings that each move independently of each other and can be used to steer the insect like rudders. A quick and easy way to distinguish the two groups is to observe the way the wings are held when the insect is resting. Dragonflies lack a “hinge” to close their wings and so they rest with their wings out flat. They also have two large compound eyes that face forward and sometimes touch. Damselflies fold their wings together up over their long, delicate abdomen when they are perched, much like a resting butterfly. The compound eyes of damselflies are wide-set. Both also have three simple eyes grouped together between their stubby antennae.

Dragon- and damselflies are most often found near water as they spend their larval stage on the bottom of ponds, streams, lakes, creeks and rivers. The naiads (the technical name for their larvae) breathe through gills and eat the likes of tadpoles, snails, mosquito larvae and other aquatic insects. A significant portion of the lives of these creatures is spent as a naiad.

While — depending on the species — they may spend anywhere from 11 months to several years as a larva, their adult life lasts a mere month. Naiads undergo a series of molts as they grow. Just before the final molt, the insect crawls from the water and positions itself on a rock or plant stem, head pointed upwards. The larval skin then splits and the partially emerged adult hangs upside down until its skin hardens. Eventually, the wings fill with blood and the insect is able to fly. The whole process takes less than an hour. They soon develop their full coloration and are ready to begin the mating process a week or two later.

Some species lay eggs by flying over the water's surface and repeatedly dabbing their abdomen into the water, each time, depositing an egg. Other species insert eggs into plant tissue or “glue” them to rocks or plants in shallow water. The resulting naiads have a harpoon-like jaw that rapidly juts out from their mouth, nabs prey, and then conveniently deposits it back into their mouth.

There are many common species that can readily be found flitting around backyard water features here in Western Pennsylvania, including the common green darner, the Eastern pondhawk, bluets and the widow skimmer.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.