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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The blue-banded damselfly, one of 19 species of bluets found in Wisconsin. © Rich Phalin
A blue-banded damselfly, one of 19 species of bluets found in Wisconsin. © Rich Phalin

April 2004

Wading with damsels

Walk through water to glimpse these winged beauties in action.

Mike Reese


Identifying damselflies | An ode to Odes

The jewel-bright sparkle of a damselfly on the wing or in repose never fails to excite. These graceful insects dazzle professional and amateur entomologists alike with their shining colors and delicate wing tracery. Watching a damsel up close is like peering through a loupe at a rare and precious gem; several species are even named after the rubies and amber they resemble.

It's easy to locate and observe damsels if you immerse yourself into their habitat. My favorite field trips involve wading through the headwaters of shallow clear trout streams in mid- to late afternoon; at different times of the spring, summer and fall seasons, different species groups are present. Damselflies actually spend most of their lives as larvae under the water and the adult stage is short-lived, all the more reason to see them while you can. Water-loving damsels rise and dip through shoreline vegetation, sometimes less than a foot from the ground. Both larvae and adults are predators that consume smaller invertebrates. Find a good clear stream, a shallow pond, or a riverbank where you can wade in the water and you can learn first-hand about their behaviors and habits. I hope my photos will inspire you to take a closer look at these tiny, fascinating creatures.

Identifying damselflies

Damselflies are to dragonflies what skippers are to butterflies; closely related species with just enough differences to call them by different names. Classified together in the order Odonata, damselflies and dragonflies are among the most ancient of living creatures. The forerunners of present-day odonates were flying more than 300 million years ago, predating dinosaurs by more than 100 million years and birds by some 150 million years.

The most easily observable difference between the two groups is that the wings of dragonflies are open when they are at rest, while damselflies' wings are totally closed or only partially open at rest. Damselflies are in general much thinner than dragonflies and they tend to spend less time in flight. Damselflies are rarely in the air more than 30 seconds at a time, while some species of dragonflies migrate long distances and others hardly ever land, preferring to fly all day long.

The 46 species of damselflies found in Wisconsin fall into three main types: broad-winged damsels, spreadwings and pond damsels. The broad-winged damsels are probably the best known. These damselflies have darkened, broad wings that are colored, not clear as in the other damselflies.

The ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) is the most common broad-winged damsel and is found throughout Wisconsin. The females often congregate in groups to lay eggs on vegetation in or on top of the water. I once saw four female ebony jewelwings laying their eggs while an American rubyspot (another broad-winged damsel, Hetaerina americana) male landed time and time again on the females' wings. The male evidently was trying to find a dry place to land, and the jewelwings just happened to be an available, though precarious, perch!

Spreadwings all hold their wings spread at an angle when at rest. There are ten species of spreadwings in Wisconsin, and all seem to prefer smaller, shallower lakes or ponds. In Waushara County in central Wisconsin, I saw six species of spreadwings in a shallow, less than five-acre lake with an abundant variety of emergent vegetation growing near shore. The females of most spreadwing species, unlike the broad-winged damsels, lay their eggs while still attached to the male. I waded out into about a foot of water to take the photo of four pairs of amber-winged spreadwings (Lestes eurinus) laying eggs together on a single bulrush. After taking the photo, I looked around and the spreadwings were everywhere. I counted more than 50 pairs within ten yards of where I stood.

Amber-winged spreadwings are listed on the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory list as a species of special concern. Although they are not the longest spreadwing, they are the largest-bodied ones and appear huge compared to the pond damsels. They also are the only damselfly I observed eating other damselflies, including other spreadwing species. Although amber-winged spreadwings were abundant and conspicuous at this site, I did not see them at any other location.

Spreadwing males stay attached to the females during egg laying. Rarely would a male attach itself to another male by accident, but I was able to observe male-to-male-to-female triplets on two occasions. I witnessed an amber-winged spreadwing triplet flying completely stretched out so that the entire length was nearly six inches, which was quite a spectacle! Two weeks later on the same pond I saw three sweetflag spreadwings (Lestes forcipatus) flying around and was able to capture the triplet on film.

The largest group of damselflies in Wisconsin is the pond damsels with 32 species. These insects are very small, with the largest at barely 1.5 inches in length. With a very narrow body and clear wings, the pond damsels can be difficult to observe and identify. Use good, close-focusing binoculars. To identify pond damsel species, observe male/female interactions, so that you can get to know the females. The females of many damselflies vary in color. The Eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), for example, may be yellow, male-like green, or a bluish white color on older individuals. When I first started observing this species, I thought I'd found a species new to me, only to find out it was just another form of the Eastern forktail. Pond damsel males are not so variable and therefore much easier to identify once you are familiar with them.

This is not to say male pond damsels are easy to tell apart! I looked them up in every book I could find, plus checked on the Internet for additional information and photos to help identify these species. One book said the familiar bluet (Enallagma civile) was one of the easiest bluets to recognize. I can say without a doubt, I am still not familiar with this species! Although I have seen it on four occasions, it looks very much like several other damsels. I must have it in my hand and observe it closely to determine its exact identity. Luckily, over three-fourths of the pond damsels are easy to identify, and it is only the very similar species of bluets that give even the best taxonomist fits!

Like the spreadwings, the majority of the female pond damsels lay eggs in plant material while the male is still attached. For the male, this pretty much guarantees he will be the last to mate with the female and his genes will be passed on to the next generation.

The Eastern red damsel (Amphiagrion saucium) is not a common pond damsel species in central Wisconsin, but it is found throughout the state and is the only red damselfly, making it very easy to identify. My photo of the red damsel was taken in the middle of a stream as the female repeatedly laid eggs on the clumps of vegetation available at the top of the water. It was one of many pairs of red damsels I saw on June 20. Two weeks later, I did not see any in the same stream, which shows that timing is important if you want to see some of these species at their prime.

Another species abundant in late June and throughout July in that same stream was the river bluet (Enallagma anna) a species of special concern in Wisconsin that has only been recorded in four Wisconsin counties. This species has a very distinctive male abdominal appendage extending nearly the same length as the last abdominal segment.

In late June and early July, on a stream that was slightly larger, but ten miles away, a different group of damselflies prevailed. Stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans) and variable dancers (Argia fumipennis) were abundant and ebony jewelwings and American rubyspots were packing the bleachers, but I didn't see a single river bluet or a red damsel.

The Wisconsin form of the variable dancer is violet in color and so is sometimes called the violet dancer. Like the red damsel, the color alone on this damselfly more or less guarantees you are watching this species. The mated pairs of violet dancers laying eggs that I saw often did so in groups.

The stream bluet is a larger species and, at almost 1.5 inches, is one the longest bluets in Wisconsin. With males still holding onto the females, stream bluets were much more impressive to watch as the females laid their eggs. Partially because of the added height, they seemed to stick far above the vegetation. I photographed of five pairs of stream bluets and a single pair of variable dancers laying eggs with the male attached just inches above the water on July 1. Later in the year, I observed a female stream bluet completely immersing herself underwater to lay eggs on a plant. The male let go instead of being dragged under and hovered overhead as the female laid her eggs.

An ode to Odes

Damselflies are attracting an ever-growing base of admirers. The Department of Natural Resources continues to work with partners developing two websites with damselfly and dragonfly information. The first is posted on a portion of the DNR endangered resources website to provide photos and descriptions of the threatened and endangered dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies found here. You can access the site at Wisconsin's Rare Dragonflies and Damselflies.

The second site is intended as a more comprehensive online field guide to damselflies and dragonflies found in Wisconsin. It will be housed online at the Aquatic and Terrestrial Resources Inventory (ATRI), a site set up by state and university researchers as a sort of one-stop shop for authoritative information about Wisconsin species. The ATRI site already offers links to impressive listings of vascular plants, herps, breeding birds, beetles, mollusks and small mammals. We anticipate damselfly and dragonfly listings will be added this summer. The site will include species characteristics, distributions by county, habitats, flight periods, photos and online reporting forms to share observations. You can access ATRI at: The Aquatic & Terrestrial Resources Inventory.

If you are interested in taking part in a statewide effort to map the distributions and habitats used by the Odonata (damselflies and dragonflies), start boning up on your identification skills. Those who might like to take part in the atlas project can contact DNR invertebrate researcher Bob DuBois. DuBois recommends two field guides: "A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts" includes most of the species we see here and can be ordered for $20 from the Massachusetts Heritage and Endangered Species Program, 1 Rabbit Hill Road, Westborough, MA 01591; "Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio," includes many of the species found here. The guide contact is Renee Boronka.

Damselflies develop in water. To protect them, we need to protect, conserve and, where possible, increase suitable shoreland habitat. By working in your community to preserve wetlands and safeguard water quality in lakes, rivers and streams, you can help ensure these colorful and beguiling insects with a long, long history will have an equally lengthy future.

Mike Reese is a teacher from Wautoma and a true dragonfly, damselfly and butterfly enthusiast. He maintains a website, Wisconsin Butterflies, where researchers and amateur entomologists can share information and observations.