Dragonflies are familiar sights to Ozarkers throughout the summer. Though they look like creatures that could sting and/or bite, they do neither to humans. On the contrary, these large-winged insects perform a beneficial service to people by preying on mosquitoes and other flying insects. (Dragonfly larvae also eat mosquito larvae.)
Scientific name: Order Odonata
Nicknames: Darners, skimmers
Claim to fame: Dragonflies are familiar sights to Ozarkers throughout the summer. Though they look like creatures that could sting and/or bite, they do neither to humans. On the contrary, these large-winged insects perform a beneficial service to people by preying on mosquitoes and other flying insects. (Dragonfly larvae also eat mosquito larvae.)
Species status: The status of Missouri’s dragonfly species vary greatly, ranging from commonly sighted species like the widow skimmer to the state-endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly.
First discovered: The first scientific descriptions of many of the world’s dragonfly species was written by Edmond de Selys Longchamps (1813-1900). In his day, this Belgian politician and scientist was considered the world’s premier expert on dragonflies.
Family matters: Dragonflies are members of the insect order Odonata. Entomologists divide this order into two groupings: Members of the infra-order Zygoptera, commonly called damselflies, hold their wings above their bodies when resting. Members of the infra-order Anisoptera, known as the “true” dragonflies, spread their wings flat when at rest. At least 65 species of dragonflies live in Missouri – and probably more are yet to be discovered. Insect experts estimate there are approximately 5,500 dragonfly species worldwide.
Length: The size of dragonflies vary from one species to the next, but in Missouri, the majority of dragonflies are between one and three inches long and have wingspans of similar dimensions.
Diet: Adult dragonflies eat mosquitoes, midges, flies, bees, and sometimes moths and butterflies.
Weight: Not available
Distinguishing characteristics: Dragonflies come in an assortment of colors and patterns, but all have some common characteristics. One of these is four long, multi-veined and usually transparent wings. These wings can give them a flight speed of up to 60 mph, making them the fastest insects in the world. These wings, which can operate independently of each other if necessary, allow the insect to hover, fly backwards and execute rolls and tight turns. They also allow dragonflies to accelerate to top speed in a fraction of a second. Another noticeable feature is two large compound eyes. Dragonflies have up to 30,000 facets in each large bulging “eye” – each facet being a separate light-sensing organ. Because of their size and composition, a dragonfly’s field of vision is nearly 360 degrees. This combination of good flight skills and incredible vision makes the adult dragonfly one of the insect world’s most effective hunters. Dragonflies have slender bodies which are divided into three parts; head, thorax and abdomen.
Life span: Most of the dragonflies found in Missouri complete their life cycle in one year. In other regions, some dragonflies remain in the larval stage for several years. As adults, most dragonflies – regardless of region – live only a few weeks.
Habitat: Habitat has some variances among species, but all rely on wetland/aquatic areas.
Life cycle: Though the lifespans vary from several months to several years, the life cycle is similar for all species: Females lay eggs in or near water (often on floating or emergent plants). Most of the life cycle is spent in the larval (nymph) form beneath the water where gills are used to breathe. Immature dragonflies shed their skin as they grow. When they are ready to transform into adults, they climb above the water to perform their final act of skin-shedding. Newly emerged adults need a short period to inflate their wings so they can harden and fly. Insect-eating birds consume a large number of dragonflies during this vulnerable, flight-less stage.