By U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

They’re not dragons, and they’re not flies. However inaptly they’re named, the stunt pilots of the insect world are attention-getters. They wear flashy colors; dart at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour; boast ancestors that predate dinosaurs; mate in mid-air. Aggressive predators and carnivores, they’re out for blood – but not yours. What’s not to love? 

A swelling fan base has decided, not much. A crop of new field guides, mounting attendance at dragonfly festivals and the spread of online dragonfly photos and other information all point one way: “People are fascinated with finding dragonflies and damselflies [their biological cousins]," says David True, refuge ranger at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. “It is a growing thing.” 

Bruce Lund, with the Friends of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Nevada, agrees. He credits rising interest, in part, to two popular new field guides by zoologist Dennis Paulson and new state guides that help dragonfly enthusiasts identify their finds. Then there are the viewer-friendly habits of the insects themselves. 

Dragonfly“People are attracted to these insects because they are big (compared to other insects), colorful, and active in daytime,” says Lund, who leads periodic refuge dragonfly tours. “They perch for long periods and keep returning to the same perches,” making them easier to photograph than butterflies, which stop less often and less predictably. Adults and children also like dragonflies’ fanciful names: Vivid Dancer, Sparkling Jewelwing, Furtive Forktail, Stygian Shadowdragon, Harlequin Darner, Dragonhunter, Ebony Boghaunter are some of those highlighted on a fact sheet at the Aransas refuge.  

National wildlife refuges are happy to host dragonflies not just because they’re native wildlife but because they provide natural mosquito control and are indicators of clean water. Dragonflies are generally most abundant in mid to late summer. Dragonflies and damselflies are members of the biological order odonata, meaning “toothed ones.” (“They don’t have teeth; don’t ask me why they’re called that,” says True.) 

Some refuges known for their dragonflies include:

  • Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico: The refuge plans to host its 12th annual dragonfly festival on Sept. 7 and 8. Last year’s festival, which also celebrated the refuge’s 75th birthday, drew more than 2,000 people, up from the usual 1,000 to 1,200. More than 60 dragonfly species have been spotted on the refuge, including the rare bleached skimmer. Stop by the visitor center to see the collection of dragonflies there. Peak dragonfly viewing is in July and August.
  • Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana. Refuge wetlands host 30 species of dragonflies and 13 species of damselflies, including some rare kinds, found a 2009 survey. Pick up “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the Patoka River Refuge” at the refuge office; the printout lists species, flight seasons and likelihood of sightings. While you’re there, see the dragonfly life cycle poster on display. Three miles of refuge trails lead visitors through habitats where dragonflies can be seen. The Halloween pennant dragonfly, named for its orange and black wings, can be found at almost any refuge oxbow or wetland from mid-June through early October.
  • Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Dragonfly species you may see at the refuge include Red Saddlebags and Wandering Gliders. See a complete list of resident dragonfly species at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.
  • In southern Nevada, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex (including Ash Meadows RefugeDesert Refuge, Moapa Valley Refuge and Pahranagat Refuge) recently completed surveys of its dragonflies and damselflies. Biologists and volunteers documented 35 dragonfly species, including two found in the state for the first time. Ask for a checklist of species when you visit.   
Did you know?
  • Dragonflies boast two sets of wings, which they flap at about 30 beats per second. 
  • Dragonflies have huge compound eyes, which give them almost 360-degree vision. 
  • Dragonflies develop a taste for meat early. As nymphs, they snack on water insects, worms, mosquito larvae and small fish. 
  • When at rest, a dragonfly holds its wings open, either at right angles to its body or downward. A damselfly closes its wings, usually over its abdomen. 
  • Dragonflies don’t have stingers and can’t harm you.
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Photo: Tom Soper Photography/Flickr

Why 'dragonflying' is taking off
People are flocking to dragonfly festivals and exhibits to get a closer look at this fascinating insect.