Top facts about dragonflies

Jess Price from the Sussex Wildlife Trust sheds light on a fantastic mini-predator, the dragonfly, and explains why the weather can affect their numbers. 

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It has certainly been a slow start to summer this year, but we seem to be getting some sunshine now and hopefully with it, we might finally see some dragonflies out on the hunt. These aerial predators are amazing creatures, perfectly adapted to snatch unsuspecting prey out of the air. Their powerful wings help them to dart and change direction at speed whilst their huge eyes mean they can spot even the smallest insect flying past.

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There are over 30 species of dragonfly found in the UK and in good years they can be seen on the wing from May to October. Unfortunately, like much of our wildlife, their abundance and success is affected by the weather. Adult dragonflies tend to only fly in sunny conditions because they rely on the sun’s heat to get their flight muscles warm enough to work. So far it has been relatively cold and dull and as a result dragonflies are appearing to be pretty scarce.

As well as a lack of suitable flying days, the cold weather is also affecting the number of dragonflies emerging as adults. Although we may think of a bright shiny insect when we talk about dragonflies, they actually spend very little of their lives looking like this. The majority of a dragonfly’s life; anywhere from 6 months to 6 years, is spent under water in ponds and marshy areas as a nymph. It is only once a nymph becomes fully grown, that it crawls up the stem of a plant out of the water to allow the adult form to emerge. The timing of this emergence is dependent on the water temperature and this year there hasn’t been much heat.

Compared to their elegant adult forms, dragonfly nymphs are really rather drab, however this makes them perfectly adapted to living in the gloom at the bottom of ponds. They are stout looking things with dark brown or greenish colouring, no wings and a large abdomen, but like the adults they are fearsome predators. Nymphs spend the majority of their time crawling around on sediment and submerged vegetation hunting for tasty morsels of pond life such as water boatmen, tadpoles, water fleas and even other dragonfly nymphs.

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It hasn’t been a great year for dragonfly spotting so far, but maybe along with the weather this will change. If you want to find out more about the different species and how to identify them, I recommend the British Dragonfly Society’s website. Alternatively why not contact your Local Wildlife Trust to see if they have any dragonfly courses, walks or events coming up.