Living Lakes: Dragon or Damsel?

Odonates (better known to most of us as dragonflies and damselflies) exemplify the link between clean water and healthy wildlife.

Odonates spend most of their lives underwater. They hatch from eggs dropped in the water or laid on aquatic vegetation. The hatching nymphs then grow and molt repeatedly for up to four years. They are actively feeding and growing underwater all year long, which is mind boggling really when you think about it. Eventually they’ll molt into an adult, emerging from the water to live another couple of months while searching for a mate to start the cycle over again.

Odonates are voracious predators, both as nymphs and adults. They help control other insect populations, especially mosquitoes, and they themselves are an important food source for birds, frogs, fish, bees and other critters. To complete their life cycle, Odonates need clean water full of oxygen, healthy aquatic vegetation, and diverse upland vegetation where they can hide from predators, find prey and locate potential mates.

Each Odonate species has a particular habitat niche, so a mix of Odonate species around a lake is a good indicator of diverse and healthy habitats. Most are not tolerant of pollution, excessive nutrients or siltation, so as a group they are also excellent indicators of lake health.

Damselfly or Dragonfly? They are close relatives but easy to tell apart. Damselfly bodies are longer and thinner, and their narrower wings are usually held closed at rest. Dragonflies have shorter, chunkier bodies with larger eyes and rest with both sets of wings open.

Top Left Photo: The Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Lestes rectangularis) is a widespread dragonfly found across the lower 48 states. They prefer open and shallow ponds, lakes, marshes and slow streams with lots of sunlight and little surface vegetation. (Photo by Bill Bunn)

Top Right Photo: The Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis) damselfly is found in all 16 Maine counties, on lakes or ponds with regular shade and dense emergent vegetation. (Photo by Bill Bunn)

How can you help Odonates? Planting wide strips of diverse native vegetation along a lake’s edge is not only good for filtering runoff and protecting water quality. It also provides good wildlife habitat. Tall vertical plants such as grasses make ideal perches, though mixing those in with other broad-leaf plants is ideal.

Some experts say that Odonates will perch on tall bamboo stakes (not live plants), about 3-4 feet high and set in full sun among other lakeside vegetation. And, please, do not use pesticides! Without reproducing adults, there are no eggs, which are a valuable food source important to a lake’s ecosystem.

See the grasses and other buffer plants listed in the Buffer Handbook Plant List.

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