Backyard Buddies
Dragonflies

Photo: R Nicolai

Dragonflies

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Neither dragons nor flies, dragonflies are insects with more than 320 species known to live in Australia. Different species of dragonflies also have distinctive markings and colours, so with practice, you'll be able to recognise one type from another, just like birds. Different species emerge at different times of year, so keep a look out no matter what month it is.

Watch out for dragonflies wherever there is water such as a pond, stream, river or lake. Dragonflies are happy to hang around your backyard provided you have a permanent water supply, such as a pond that contains food that the dragonfly nymphs can live on.

Dragonflies chase and catch other insects in acrobatic displays. When they rest, their wings lie flat just like when they are in flight as they cannot fold them over their bodies.

Dragonflies can catch their prey in mid flight by forming a basket with their spiny front and middle legs. They are expert fliers, with the ability to hover, and fly backwards and forwards, and have excellent vision, with two large eyes and three small eyes. Dragonflies are superb fliers but have another secret making them one of the best predators in your backyard. They have mastered the art of camouflaging themselves while flying.

The dragonfly manages motion camouflage by adjusting its position to always occupy the same spot in its prey's retina - so they can track other insects with incredibly intricate manoeuvring that makes them appear motionless to their target. They achieve this by using a system even more sophisticated than the radar-avoiding technology of aircraft.

On the east coast of New South Wales and south-east Queensland, Giant Dragonflies start emerging from October and November right up until January. Giant Dragonflies have a wingspan of up to 13 cm.

Dragonflies are great to have around your garden as they are insect eating machines. Dragonflies and dragonfly larvae particularly love to eat mosquitoes. Adult dragonflies also eat White Cabbage butterflies and other flying insects, which they grab in mid-air.

Outdoor bug zappers are more likely to zap dragonflies than mosquitoes, and dragonflies will keep your mosquito numbers down for you - no need for a zapper when you have dragonfly buddies.

The breeding season for Dragonflies lasts up to three weeks, and many species flaunt bright colours on their wings and bodies to attract a mate. Males may even become territorial and will defend their turf against any rival that tries to upstage him.

Once he has attracted a female, the male will grasp her behind the head. If you are lucky, you may see them flying by in their embrace or see them land on a perch to mate.

The female will lay its eggs into, or close to, water. The larvae hatch and live an aquatic life, feeding on other insects, tadpoles and occasionally fish. After developing through twelve stages, the larvae finally crawl out of the water. They split their skin and an adult Dragonfly is born.

Several Dragonfly species, such as the Giant Dragonfly, are endangered because the larvae rely on clean water and on specific water temperatures and oxygen levels to survive.

If you want to attract dragonflies to your backyard, establish a pond. Take a big bottleful of water from an older pond and tip it into a new one to introduce aquatic insects. It's best to give them their own pond - pond fish will eat dragonfly larvae swimming underwater.

Dragonflies are solar powered. As cold blooded insects, they need to absorb the warmth of the sun before they can be really active. Place some light-coloured rocks around your garden pond for dragonflies to sun themselves on, and make sure that it is not more than 30% covered by shade.

Did you know?

Dragonflies have been around on earth for around 300 million years. At the time of the dinosaurs, their wingspan would have measured a scary 70 centimetres. Today, they reach from a tiny 15 mm to 13 centimetres except for the endangered Giant Dragonfly.

The difference between a Dragonfly and its cousin the Damselfly is that the damsel is much more delicate and keeps its wings close along its body when resting.

Dragonflies don't rely on specific host plants to nourish their young the way butterflies do, although some species do use water plants as nurseries. They insert their eggs into the soft stems.

Tip

Plant aquatic plants in your pond, and border plants that are semi-submerged so that dragonfly larvae can pull themselves out of the water. Avoid using chemicals or pesticides in the garden as they will end up in the pond water and make it unhealthy.

You can help your Dragonflies by keeping their water clean. Avoid using garden chemicals that might run off into a local creek or change the water quality of your pond.

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Quote

”...it’s all connected, your backyard to the big backyard and everything in between – we can all do our bit to help out nature.“

John - National Parks Volunteer, SA

Photo: OEH