Damselflies hunt on the wing. They are not as acrobatic in flight as dragonflies, and I have seen them in flight manoeuvring slowly, rather like emaciated air balloons, floating horizontally searching for prey in the garden.

In the same taxonomic order (Odonata) as dragonflies, damselflies are categorised in a separate suborder. More slender and less robust than dragonflies, most damselflies fold their wings back above the abdomen when at rest.

Damselfly at rest

Resting on the end of a leaf, a damselfly in typical posture with the wings folded back

A delicate and slender damselfly at rest

Another species of damselfly in the garden, taking a break from hunting and showing how slender and delicate it is. Like most damselflies when at rest, its wings are folded back vertically above and parallel to the abdomen

In keeping with their size, adult damselflies prey on small insects such as flies and mosquitoes. In flight, they grab their prey using their legs that are barbed with small spine-like hairs. Like dragonflies, damselflies have strong toothed jaws.

Damselfly resting with wings spread

There are some species of damselflies that do not fold the wings back when perched such as this one pictured above

Close-up of damselfly with wings spread

Even though this damselfly perches with its wings spread, it is still easy to see from its slender shape that it is a damselfly and not a dragonfly. Unlike dragonflies, in damselflies the eyes are distinctively separate on either side of the head

Dragonfly on perch, South Africa

Generally, dragonflies are much more robust than damselflies, as in the photograph above

Adult damselflies, especially the females, may seek food away from water, but they are dependent on water for breeding. Most species of damselfly lay their eggs in water plants, especially in submerged plants. The carnivorous larvae that hatch from the eggs are entirely aquatic and they feed on other aquatic creatures. Damselfly larvae are equipped with gill-like appendages at the end of the abdomen that enable them to take oxygen from the water.

For its final moult, a damselfly larva climbs up out of the water and the adult emerges from the exoskeleton. Damselflies only have three forms in their lifecycle: egg, larva and adult. They do not pupate.

Damselflies have an unusual mating procedure. In preparation for mating the male removes sperm from the primary genital area at the end of the abdomen and transfers it to accessory genitalia further along the abdomen towards the thorax. In order to mate, the male clasps the female using a specialised appendage that fits into grooves behind the female’s head. Once so positioned the damselflies are now “in tandem” and they can fly together when so joined.

If receptive, once in tandem the female then curves her abdomen forward and upwards so as to be able to receive the sperm now located in the male’s subsidiary genital area that is at the second and third segments of his abdomen. This curved and complicated mating position is referred to as “the wheel”.

Pair of damselflies mating in the wheel position

A pair of mating damselflies in “the wheel”. Depending on the species this coupling may last anything from a few seconds, to several minutes and even up to about an hour

Close-up of pair of damselflies mating

A close-up of the coupling structure in a mating pair of damselflies. In most damselfly species the male is more colourful than the female, who tends to be more camouflaged

Mating damselflies

I photographed this mating pair at a dam in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. All the other photographs were taken in our garden

Damselflies in tandem on lily leaf in garden pond

The damselflies in the photo above are in tandem, with the male still clasping the female behind the head. This pair has completed mating (unseen by me) and are preparing to lay their eggs in our garden pond. In this species the male has conspicuously red eyes and head

Pair of damselflies in tandem

Another view of the pair in tandem. The female is perching and the male is balanced above  her. (I have not attempted to identify any of the species of damselfly in these photographs – I think that requires more specialist skills than I have!)

Pair of damselflies in tandem as female lays eggs

Still in tandem, the female is starting to oviposit, lay her eggs, below the surface of the water. The tip of her abdomen is submerged as she starts to lay

Close-up of female damselfly ovipositing

Above is a close-up of the female as she starts to lay her eggs in a curled up leaf of a waterlily

Female damselfly submerging to lay eggs. Male in tandem above surface of the water

As the egg laying progressed the female submerged entirely. Adult damselflies can breathe underwater as they are encased in a small bubble of air. The pair is still in tandem, and the male is still above the surface of the water

Not all species of damselfly remain in tandem when the female starts to lay her eggs. It is thought that the benefit of the male remaining with the laying female is to protect her as she lays the eggs. And not all species of damselfly that remain in tandem submerge as completely as this pair does. It seems to be risky behaviour as both damselflies are at risk of predation from fish and other creatures, and it is not understood why in some species the pair submerges completely like this. They can stay submerged for as long as 20 minutes.

Pair of damselflies submerged as the female lays her eggs

In this photograph it is possible to see the pair are completely submerged, and the male continues to clasp the head of the female as she lays her eggs in submerged vegetation

I did manage to film a short sequence as the damselflies started to submerge. Unfortunately, I was so surprised that I stopped filming to see what was going on! The female started to submerge so rapidly I thought that she had been grabbed by a predator, but it turned out that was propelling herself deeper under the water, dragging the male down with her. I lost sight of them in the vegetation, but I can only assume that they surfaced once egg laying was completed. Fortunately for them, we no longer have fish in the pond.

Despite its abrupt end, I include the short video clip of the submerging damselflies. The clip is introduced by footage of the pond cascade, and it is followed by another clip showing tadpoles in the pond.


Sources: Learn About Nature. Dragonfly-site.com https://www.dragonfly-site.com/damselfly.html (https://www.learnaboutnature.com/); Samways, Michael J. 2008. Dragonflies and Damselflies of South Africa. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft.

Damselflies mating

Posted by Carol

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