What to Know About Dragonflies

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 11, 2022
5 min read

Dragonflies are colorful and energetic insects with long bodies and wings. They’re favorites among insect collectors because of their rare, vivid colors. There are more than 5,000 species of dragonflies worldwide.

Here’s more about dragonflies’ life cycle and lifespan, along with some interesting dragonfly facts.

Dragonflies are insects that belong to the scientific order Odonata. In Greek, Odonata means the “toothed one.” It refers to the toothed or serrated jaws of dragonflies, which they use to catch their prey.  

They have long, thin bodies with two pairs of horizontally stretched-out, membranous, shiny, and veined wings. The wings can be transparent or colorful, depending on the species. Their wings at the back are slightly wider than those at the front of their body. 

Dragonflies have large, compound eyes made up of many tiny units. The eyes are joined and make up most of the dragonfly’s head. They have short antennae and six legs that are ideal for perching but not for walking.

Dragonflies are great predators and eat insects like mosquitoes, gnats, cicadas, flies, and other small flying insects. A dragonfly can eat up to hundreds of mosquitoes each day. They capture their prey by scooping up their legs like a basket. When they spot their prey, they swoop down to catch it with their legs and bite it with their serrated jaws to hold it. They often eat the prey midflight.

You’ll find dragonflies flying or perching on a surface near water bodies. They're territorial and defend their areas by perching or patrolling in patterns at different heights.

Dragonflies’ life cycle is divided into the following stages:

Mating and egg stage. Adult male dragonflies perch on plants and branches or patrol their territories. They do this to find females for mating and drive away rival male dragonflies. Once a male dragonfly finds a female, they form a mating pair and fly in tandem. 

Depending on the dragonfly species, they may fly for a few minutes or hours until the female lifts her abdomen to the male’s organ. After mating, the dragonflies separate and fly away. Some territorial male dragonflies follow the female to protect her from other males when she lays eggs. The female flies low over the water, dropping hundreds of eggs inside and leaving them to hatch. After laying eggs, dragonflies may mate again.

A female can lay thousands of eggs in her lifetime in batches over days or weeks. Females typically drop their eggs into the water, on wet ground near the water, or inside a slit in the stem of aquatic plants. The eggs incubate in the water and hatch within one to five weeks, depending on the dragonfly species.

Larval or nymphal stage. Tiny, six-legged creatures hatch out of the eggs. They are called larvae or nymphs. They look dull brown and have covered wings, scooplike hinged jaws, and large eyes. They have gills inside their hind end, through which they take in and give out water to breathe underwater. 

Dragonfly larvae are predators. They eat worms, insect larvae, snails, leeches, tadpoles, and small fish like minnows. For movement, the nymphs forcefully expel water out of their hind part like jet skis. 

The larval stage is the longest stage of a dragonfly’s life cycle. Dragonfly larvae undergo several molts or shed their skin many times as they grow. Based on the species, the larvae shed their skin up to 12 times. They can take two or three years to mature. They're often covered with algae.

In the later stages, the larvae gather near the water’s edge to find a good spot and prepare for the final shedding. They also learn to breathe air. Once they’re fully grown and ready, they crawl out of the water. They find a safe place like a plant or rock to rest, shed their skin, and emerge as young adult dragonflies. Over a few days or weeks, they completely mature into adult dragonflies.

Adult stage. A young adult dragonfly emerges after the larval stage. Unlike butterflies, dragonflies undergo incomplete metamorphosis and skip the cocoon stage. They directly reach the adult stage after the final shedding or molting outside the water. 

The larvae redistribute fluids in their bodies. They slowly push their newly formed body out of the old skin, giving enough time for each part to dry and harden. They leave the old shell or exuvia behind and emerge as young adult dragonflies within one to three hours. 

Newly emerged young adult dragonflies look pale and have reflective wings. During this time, they hunt and eat other flying insects. They also hunt far away from the water for a week to grow into adults. At maturity, the adult dragonflies head toward the water and prepare for mating and breeding.

Adult dragonflies’ lifespan can last from two weeks to two months, depending on the species.

Dragonflies capture their food by biting and have sharp, pointed jaws, which they use to eat small insects. They're not dangerous to humans. When a dragonfly lands on you, it won’t bite you.

But if you catch a dragonfly and carelessly hold it in your hand, its jaws can reach your skin. The dragonfly may bite you in self-defense. Their bite may startle or hurt you a little. But very few dragonflies bite hard enough to break your skin and cause bleeding. Even if a dragonfly bites you, there’s no danger because the insect bite is very small.

Also, dragonfly larvae may look vicious but don’t harm humans. Some dragonfly researchers or odonatologists have reported that older larvae of larger dragonfly species use their jaws to bite their fingers. They may bite only when they sense danger.

Dragonflies don’t sting like bees. But if you interrupt egg-laying dragonflies, they may lay their eggs in your clothing or even flesh. Some researchers have reported that loosely held dragonfly larvae move their abdomen from side to side. This motion causes their pointed spines to insert into the researchers’ flesh. But this happens only because the insect is trying to protect itself.

Here are some interesting dragonfly facts:

1. Dragonfly larvae or nymphs don’t have wings and live underwater for up to four years. So, dragonflies end up spending most of their lives underwater. 

2. Dragonflies can move or rotate each wing independently, which allows them to fly up, down, and backward. 

3. Dragonflies are agile hunters. In the nymph stage, they hunt small fish and tadpoles. But adult dragonflies hunt other flying insects by ambushing them from behind.

4. Dragonflies protect themselves from the sun and heat by obelisking — they keep their abdomen vertical to limit exposure to the sun’s direct rays.

5. Dragonflies form huge swarms to hunt in places with many insects. Some species also migrate together. 

6. Dragonflies create a heart-shaped mating wheel. The male dragonfly grabs the back of the female dragonfly’s neck with claspers near the abdomen to form the heart shape.

Handle dragonflies with care. They aren’t dangerous unless they’re provoked. But they don’t cause painful injuries or stings like some other insects. All creatures do their best to survive and protect themselves from any perceived danger.