The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

It’s almost summer here in the northern hemisphere, though Madison Avenue says otherwise.  Many insects give the lie to that as well.  For other than the absent buzzsawing of cicadas, one might think that it was high summer in SE Michigan.

Perhaps you live in an area graced by dragonflies or what you thought were dragonflies.  Myself, I’ve only determined the difference between what I thought were small or young dragonflies and actual dragonflies for about a decade.  We’re looking at two different genuses altogether.

I’m talking about damselflies.

This is not a dragonfly  (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

This is not a dragonfly (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The two belong to the same order–Odonta meaning “toothed-jaws” though I can’t find much evidence that either species bite people.

For those interested, both are also classified in suborders: zygoptera (damselflies) meaning “yoke-winged” and anisoptera (dragonflies) meaning “unequally-winged.”  I don’t know if the taxonomist(s) consulted St. Paul when naming them.

So, dragonflies and damselflies are similar, and can be confused for one another, but closer inspection reveals differences just like the annoying conflation that this meme clarifies.

Beekeepers hate it when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn't a bee at all.

Beekeepers hate when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn’t a bee at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both species have eyes conveniently located on their heads (Gasp!  Just like us!), but dragonfly eyes touch or nearly touch at the top of the head where damselfly eyes are clearly separated on each side of their head.

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

As might be known, the dragonfly is the bodybuilder of the two suborders with a stockier thorax larger than the abdomen.  Conversely, the damselfly is long and slender with its thorax and abdomen roughly the same size.

Both fly with transparent wings (though I’ve seen damselflies with smoke-black wings) but the shapes differ.  Dragonfly wings are long and narrow and are dissimilar in pairing with the hind wings broader at the base; damselfly wing pairs are similarly shaped, but rounder than their cousins.

Speaking of wings, and an easy identifier (because, let’s face it, are you going to catch a dragonfly and declare, “Why yes, Charlotte, the wings are dissimilar in shape!”?) is wing position at rest.

After cruising some time, a dragonfly will hold its wings out horizontally at rest, resembling a plane.  Naturally, the damselfly is a contrarian and it folds its wings up vertically, perhaps like something out of the Star Wars universe.

God's Biplane (courtesy of me)

God’s Biplane (courtesy of me)

Dragonflies tend to be larger than the other fly; the largest one recorded at 20 cm (about 8 inches for the metrically challenged), but they average 3-10 cm (1-4 inches).  By now you’re expecting smaller records and averages for the zygoptera and you’d be correct.  Ten centimeters was the length of the largest damselfly, though the ones you will most likely encounter average 3-8cm (1-3 inches).

The dragonfly appears to have the damselfly “beat” in most categories.  However, an adult anisoptera only lives two to three weeks, whereas the daintier damselfly can last up to six months.

If you’re not bored by this point let me drop just a couple of more comparisons for you and send you on your way.

Dragonfly                                                           Damselfly

  • flyer                                                             percher
  • round eggs                                                  cylindrical eggs

The dragonfly can fly forward at about 100 body lengths per second (that seems wrong, doesn’t it?), backward at 3 body lengths per second, and can hover for close to a minute.

Both insects breed and live around freshwater and will eat whatever insects are available.  Both are preyed upon by birds, frogs, fish, and larger flies.

Still after more than 40 years on this planet, I find it thrilling to spot a dragonfly cruising around with more precision than even our best drones.  The almost clumsy and yet gentle flight of the damselfly evokes wonder.  The panoply of colors that abound in these too orders is likewise exhilarating.  Don’t let the seeming commonplaceness of these insects dull your sense of awe.

"Common" blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

“Common” blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

So the next time you see some iridescent flying thing that’s either too large for a bee or too slow for a fly, try to get a fix on it and tell whether its the dragon or the damsel.

And no, they can’t sew your lips shut.

“…Dragonflies draw flame…”  –Gerard Manley Hopkins