Damselfly (Zygoptera) 

Do a Little Dance with Damselflies

These insects have aliases across the world; adults are known as sewing needles, snake doctors, horse stingers, and mosquito hawks, and the nymphs are called water lizards.  These names come from fables in cultures that talk about damselflies sewing people. 

It no surprise that there is a wide variety of names for damselflies because there are about 2,838 named species worldwide!  There are close to 5,740 named damselfly and dragonfly species worldwide, while more than 410 damselfly species call the United States and Canada home.  It is important that we take care of the damselflies’ habitats because scientists estimate there are 500 – 1500 species that are unnamed; scientists now recognize damselflies as indicators for environmental conditions such as water flow, pollution, and vegetation type and abundance. 

ATTENTION! Damselflies are harmless to humans; contrary to some cultural beliefs, they do not bite or sting.

The following characteristics can help identify damselflies in nature:


Adult damselflies can be red, brown, yellow, green, blue, black, or a combination of these.  They usually have clear wings with the exception of a stigma which is a spot near the end of the wing that varies among the Zygopteran species; however, the damselfly’s coloration changes as it ages and fades quickly after the insect dies.

Since damselflies are insects, they have 6 legs, 2 antennae, and 3 body segments.  Unlike other insects, though, they are long and narrow, commonly measuring about 1.5 inches but can grow to be 2 inches long. This length should be as long as or longer than the wings.  Damselflies hone two pairs of wings which they usually fold above their bodies instead of folding them over the body like most insects.  Their antennae are short and are difficult to see unless you specifically look for them.  Since damselflies are predators, they use mandibles to help capture and chew their prey after the hunt; some people use them as live pest control in because they are carnivorous and agile hunters. 

Damselfly heads are large, but two compound eyes tend to dominate much of the space.  Their body is larger near the front and narrows toward the tail end, and the abdomen is made of 10 segments.  Both males and females have clasping organs toward the end.  Females lay eggs using an ovipositor located under segments 9-10 while males have a second pair of genitalia on segments 2-3.

Wing Venation:

Scientists commonly use wing venation to classify damselflies, but describing the wings can become very technical, so here is a short introduction.  Zygopterae have three major structures in wing venation: nodus, quadrangle, and pterostigma.  When describing veins, the antenodal veins are closest to the nodus, while the postnodal veins are farthest away.  Wing venation is useful in distinguishing between two species.  For example, the Coenagrionidae family has an M3 vein just behind the nodus, but in the Lestidae family, this same vein is closer to the wing base.

Naiad (Larva):

Naiads are damselfly larva, and they are completely aquatic until they hatch into the adult form.  They are easy to spot because they look similar to adult damselflies, but they do not have wings.  Each naiad has three feathery gills on its anterior end that help the naiad gather oxygen so it can breathe under water.   The coloring for naiads is not nearly as eye catching as adult damselflies because they begin a light tan color and darken each time they molt.

Naiads have a slender body and long legs that they use to move slowly through their aquatic habitats.  These long legs are also useful when clinging to rocks or vegetation.  Like their adult form, naiads are also carnivorous, and they can be quite voracious when hunting small aquatic organisms.

FACT! Damselflies and dragonflies are not related!  Keep reading to find out why...

Damselflies are more slender and sleeker than dragonflies.

Damselflies have widely separated eyes while dragonflies have eyes on the top of their heads.

Zygoptera (damselflies) means “equal winged,” while Anisoptera (dragonflies) means “unequal winged.”

When they are not flying, damselflies usually hold their wings up over their backs (with the exception of spread-winged damsels), but dragonflies hold their wings open and to the sides.

Want to know how to identify damselflies? Click here to find out how!

To learn about other organisms, check out MultipleOrganisms.net and compare them to the damselfly!