Dragonflies: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on January 16, 2023
6 min read

When you think of a dragonfly, you may assume they belong to the fly family. However, despite what their name implies and the similarities shared between the two insects, dragonflies are not a type of fly. The main difference between a dragonfly and a fly is that dragonflies have four wings, whereas flies have only two.

Some people may consider dragonflies pests and want to eliminate them from their yards. Others welcome dragonflies in their gardens because they keep other insects away. 

But what is a dragonfly, exactly?

Dragonflies are a common and easily recognizable insect found throughout the United States, Canada, and other North American countries. They are part of the Odonata order of insects. There are more than 5,500 species in North America alone, with 450 found in the U.S. and Canada. Dragonflies are sometimes confused with damselflies, a similar insect with a long, stick-like body.  They share many physical and behavioral characteristics, but dragonflies are more common.

What Do Dragonflies Look Like?

If you are looking for dragonflies, be aware that a dragonfly’s physical characteristics vary. They come in many colors, patterns, and sizes and have various wing patterns. Some dragonflies can grow to be around 5 inches in length. Most species have bulging eyes on the sides of their heads. They have good vision thanks to thousands of honeycomb-shaped lenses in each of their eyes, allowing them to spot moving targets quickly. Two sets of transparent wings extend from their spine. 

Dragonflies have various colors and shades, from black and brown to red and yellow. They also have noticeable blue and green spots on their bodies caused by internal structures. Dragonfly colors tend to change as dragonflies mature. 

They have long bodies with three significant parts: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. Dragonflies use their heads to eat and see, the thorax provides power to the wings to fly, and the abdominal portion allows them to mate and reproduce. 

Their narrow necks give them flexibility, allowing them to see their surroundings. While their eyes make up a significant portion of their head, they also contain their frons — the forehead — and other parts such as their postclypeus, anteclypeus, and labrum. These are the nose and other facial structures in the insect world. 

Dragonflies can move their heads independently due to their prothoraxes, which are part of the thorax. Although dragonflies have large eyes resting on the sides of their head, they also have three smaller eyes on the top of their heads in the shape of a triangle. 

Dragonflies have antennae, which help them identify wind speed. 

Types of Dragonflies

Many types of dragonflies exist throughout the world. A few common dragonflies include: 

  • Flame Skimmer (Libellula saturata): The flame skimmer, also known as the firecracker skimmer, is a common type of dragonfly with a reddish-toned body and golden wings. The habitat for the flame skimmer is western North America.
  • Spot-winged Glider (Pantala hymenaea): The spot-winged glider dragonfly is similar in appearance to the wandering glider dragonfly. It has a thin brownish-gold body with transparent wings. It also has a basal spot on its hindwing.
  • Blue-eyed Darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor): The blue-eyed darner is a dragonfly in the Aeshindae family. It has a beautiful black and blue body and transparent wings.

What Do Dragonflies Eat?

To answer the question of what dragonflies eat, dragonflies are carnivores. They eat mosquitoes, midges, flies, bees, butterflies, and other small insects that they can easily catch while flying. 

Dragonflies also tend to eat whatever is available to them. Their diet is not strictly limited to insects, but they make up a large portion of what they consume.

In their larval stage, dragonflies will consume the larvae from other harmful pests. 

Dragonflies Life Cycle

Dragonflies are hemimetabolous, meaning they don’t have a pupal stage. Their metamorphosis from their naiad stage to adulthood is incomplete. Throughout the life cycle of dragonflies, they go through several nymphalid stages before they reach adulthood. Female dragonflies lay eggs in plant tissues or bodies of fresh water. They have an aquatic nature which allows the larvae to breathe underwater.

A clutch, or the environment where eggs are, can hold up to 1500 eggs. Eggs usually hatch within a week, and the naiad molts around 6-15 times as they grow. 

Dragonflies remain in their larval stage for up to five years. Once ready to reach adulthood, the larvae will stop eating and emerge from the water, usually at night. The larvae remain stationary, resting their heads outside the water, allowing them to adapt to breathing air instead of water. Once they adapt to air breathing, the larvae will climb onto a plant or reed and begin molting until an adult dragonfly is left. 

The life expectancy of a dragonfly varies depending on the species. Some live only for a few months, while others can live up to several years.

You might wonder if dragonflies can bite, and the answer is yes. They can bite if provoked by being cornered or grabbed around the abdomen. However, dragonflies rarely bite or sting humans. 

How to Treat Dragonfly Bites

Dragonfly bites are usually harmless and require no treatment. Most don’t break the skin and are painless. Large dragonflies may leave behind a painful mark, but even that is a rare occurrence.

Dragonflies are more active on days when there’s ample sunshine. They also favor environments that provide them access to freshwater sources. As larvae, dragonflies live in ponds and rivers. As adults, male dragonflies will circle lakes in a show of dominance. 

Dragonflies are found in many habitats worldwide. However, you will not find them in polar areas because they don’t adapt well to colder climates. Dragonflies must have sunlight to warm their bodies before they begin their day. On cloudier days, you may not see active dragonflies.

Why Do You Get Dragonflies?

Dragonflies are aquatic insects, meaning that if you have a body of water near your home, such as a lake or pond, you’re likely to see these insects fluttering about. Dragonflies also prefer a warmer climate, so having a warm pond with plenty of vegetation is more likely to draw them near than having a colder pond that lacks vegetation.

If you have ponds or other bodies of water around your home, you may notice some signs of dragonflies inhabiting your property. Common signs include: 

  • Seeing dragonflies flying around your pond or body of water 
  • Spotting larvae emerging from your pond or body of water 

If you notice flying insects, it may not be a dragonfly. You’ll need to identify them by their elongated bodies, significantly large eyes, and four emerging wings.

Dragonflies typically aren’t known to be pests. They benefit the environment and help keep other pests like mosquitoes away. For this reason, dragonflies are highly valued insects, and many homeowners don’t mind having them around. Still, some people wonder how to get rid of dragonflies. 

Dragonflies are also favored because they help track the health of freshwater bodies, protect the environment from infectious insects, and provide beauty to nature. 

However, if you have a dragonfly population that you want to get rid of, there are a few steps you can take without harming the dragonflies.

First, you’ll want to make your pond or water body less appealing to the dragonflies. If this is not possible, you can consider adding another water source away from your home to attract dragonflies there instead. 

If you find a dragonfly trapped in your home or garage, open the window or door until the dragonfly escapes.