Naturalist Brian Keating on the differences between 2 fairytale-like bugs: damselflies and dragonflies

As summer comes to an end, many Albertans are rushing to enjoy some of the last days of camping weather, and you may notice the lack of mosquitos thanks to a special bug: the dragonfly.

These flying insects help get rid of mosquitos and other pests

Homestretch naturalist Brian Keating talks dragonflies and damselflies and their role in making summer more pleasant for humans. (Chris Fisher)

As summer comes to an end, many Albertans are rushing to enjoy some of the last days of camping weather, and you may notice the lack of mosquitos thanks to a special bug: the dragonfly.

Or at least that's what naturalist Brian Keating noticed when he stopped to see a cloud of dragonflies swarming above his head last week at a site west of Golden, B.C.

"The area is known for its wetlands, and there should have been a lot of mosquitoes around," Keating told The Homestretch on Monday.

Damselfly vs. dragonfly

Another bug zipping through the air and catching prey is the damselfly — the otherwise "daintier" version of the dragonfly, says Keating.

However, the insects are in different suborders.

They have some differences. For example, dragonflies tend to hold their wings out when they land, while damselflies tend to fold them along their body when they're at rest.

Here's a dragonfly photographed in mid-air flight. Naturalist Brian Keating says dragonflies are powerful, agile fliers capable of migrating long distances. (Ingham Nature Photography Ltd.)

Dragonflies are also faster, and are like bombers zooming through the air, says Keating.

"They can actually travel as fast as 50 kilometres an hour, whereas damselflies flit about almost like a little fairy creature. They're very delicate and graceful all around."

Some quick history

But don't underestimate these damselflies. Keating says they are incredibly successful creatures that have held up for around 300 million years.

"Fossils show that their design really hasn't changed that much for all that time," he said. "I guess they're the ultimate predatory insect design."

The insect starts its life cycle in the water as a nymph and manages to catch or capture prey with a mouth piece called a labium.

Keating says a dot-tailed whiteface dragonfly is eating a damselfly in this photo. Since dragonflies are carnivorous, they eat a wide variety of insects. (Chris Fisher)

"When they get close to prey, they shoot it outward and capture it with these pinchers and then bring it back to their face to feed on with their mouth parts," said the naturalist.

"They do a big job of cleaning up our ponds of mosquito larvae and other little creatures."

But they also may be the prey to some dragonflies, says Keating.

He says the carnivorous insects eat a wide variety of bugs ranging from small midges, mosquitoes, butterflies and moths.

Looking out for them in Alberta

Keating says you can see damselflies and dragonflies in Alberta.

He got in touch with Christine Hornung, who did her master's thesis on Alberta dragonflies. She listed 49 species of dragonflies and 23 of damsels in the Prairie province. 

"They're big, they're colourful. You can actually watch their behaviour, you can watch them return to the same perch like a flycatcher," said Keating.

Globally, there are 5,600 species of dragons and 450 species of damsels — so Alberta has a small but decent collection, the naturalist says.

Have you ever spotted a damselfly or dragonfly in Alberta? Tell us about it in the comments below!

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch.


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