How to tell the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly

Large red damselfly by Chris Lawrence

Can you tell the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly? Our Communications Officer and Odonata-lover, Molly Toal, looks at some of the dazzling species you might spot on our reserves this summer.

Summer is the season of the dragonfly. On sunny days they can be seen zipping through woodland glades and wetland habitats, hunting down their insect-prey.

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order Odonata, which means toothed ones. Both are formidable, carnivorous predators but they are harmless to humans. In fact, they do us a great service by preying on much more bothersome insects like horseflies, midges and gnats. They are also a joy to watch fly - dragonflies were among the first creatures to gain flight nearly 300 million years ago and are now inspiring scientists who design future aircrafts. Dragonflies dart, they glide, they hover and they can move each of their four wings independently of the others. Some are bold, coming right up to your face for a good look, while others are skittish and dart about. Many of our reserves, including Little Woolden Moss, Brockholes and Mere Sands Wood are ideal habitats for dragonflies and damselflies, and thanks to the support of our members, we’re able to continue to manage our sites for the benefit of these ancient creatures.

At first glance, dragonflies and damselflies look similar but they have a few distinguishing features.

Dragonflies

  • Chunky body
  • Large, broad hind-wings and smaller front-wings
  • Big eyes that touch at the top of their head
  • Rest with their wings outstretched

Damselflies

  • Slender body
  • Front-wings that are the same shape as their hind-wings
  • Eyes that are widely separated
  • Rest with their wings folded along their body

Common dragonflies and damselflies

Here are some of the most common dragonfly and damselfly species to look out for on your next walk near water.

A common darter dragonfly resting on vegetation

Common darter by Janet Packham

Common darter

One of the most common dragonflies in Europe. Common darters can be seen well into autumn near all sorts of water bodies and even in woodland clearings. Females and juveniles are a golden brown colour, with males turning a bright red colour as they age. As their name suggests, they dart forward suddenly from a hovering position to catch their insect-prey.

A black darter dragonfly covered in dew drops while it rests on vegetation

Black darter by Vaughn Matthews

Black darter

The black darter is our smallest resident dragonfly (3.4cm). Females and immature males are a brownish-yellow, with a black triangle mark on top of their thorax, while mature males are nearly completely black, with some yellow spots along their sides. These little dragonflies are a common sight on moorlands, heaths and bogs. As they fly, they have a darting and skittish flight.

An emperor dragonfly in flight on a bright sunny day

Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Emperor dragonfly

The biggest dragonfly in Britain (7.8cm), it rarely stops flying and will even eat its prey on the wing. Both sexes have a bright, apple-green thorax, greeny-blue eyes and a black line down the centre of the body. Their bright colour and large size make them quite recognisable, and you can spot them hunting over big, well-vegetated ponds, lakes and canals.

Close-up of a large red damselfly perched on a leaf

Large red damselfly by Chris Lawrence

Large red damselfly

The earliest damselfly to emerge, these very common damselflies can be spotted around all types of freshwater bodies, in woodlands and even in grasslands. Males are bright red with a black thorax, but females can have varying levels of red and black, with some forms appearing almost entirely black.

A common blue damselfly eating an insect on a plant stem

Common blue damselfly by Vaughn Matthews

Common blue damselfly

The most common damselfly, it is also very blue, although confusingly it starts off a pinkish-brown colour. As they mature, males turn pale blue with bands of black along the body, while females are blue or dull green, with distinctive black 'torpedo' markings. You can see them around almost any waterbody, or away from breeding sites in grasslands and woodlands.

A female emerald damselfly mating whilst resting on a plant stem

A female emerald damselfly mating, by Ross Hoddinott

Emerald damselfly

When perched, emerald damselflies have a habit of holding their wings half-open, rather than closed along their body like other damselflies. Males are metallic green with blue eyes and an ice-blue thorax. Females are also metallic green but with beige stripes along the thorax. They live among lush vegetation on the edge of waterbodies.