The delights of Derbyshire’s best-dressed insects

UK Damselfly

The UK boasts a grand total of forty different varieties of dragonflies and damselflies that have been recorded in locations across the length and breadth of the country. Landlocked Derbyshire is privileged enough to be home to at least 22 different types of these elegant beauties, writes Mica Bale.

Whereas of late, bees have received all the publicity; dragonflies and damselflies play a vital role in the local ecosystems by helping to maintain the natural order. As keen predators, dragonflies in particular help to keep populations of other insects at a natural balance. 

Although dragonflies and damselflies are not pollinators, their presence in your garden can help to support your area’s balanced ecosystems and keep pesky plant eaters at bay.  Reportedly a dragonfly can eat upwards of 30 insects, such as mosquitoes, a day – the ultimate in pest control!

“Reportedly a dragonfly can eat upwards of 30 insects, such as mosquitoes, a day – the ultimate in pest control!”

Interestingly, Derbyshire has a long-held history of dragonflies. In Bolsover in the late 1970s, some of the oldest remains of a dragonfly was found when miners uncovered the fossilised wing of a dragonfly. Dating back roughly 300 million years, the fossilised dragonfly wing was found in a piece of coal. Remarkably, this special fossil could easily have been overlooked but for the eagle eyes of the miners, sparking debate that evidence of even older fossilised fragments could lay undetected in the region – or, even worse, go up in smoke in someone’s front room!

With their stained glass window wings and vibrant colours, it can be difficult to tell the difference between dragonflies and the remarkably similar damselfly. In reality, whether you are confronted with the pleasing hum from the wings of either a dragonfly or damselfly, you will behold a beautiful sight.

The Dragonfly Society advises that ‘in the UK, dragonflies reach a length of about 85mm and a wingspan of about 120mm. This is the size for the larger “Hawker” dragonflies such as the Emperor and Brown Hawker. Damselflies, which are the smaller and weaker flying relatives of dragonflies, are much smaller.’ Additionally dragonflies tend to have chunkier bodies, whereas their more delicate relatives have longer and more slender bodies.

Generally speaking, younger dragonflies and damselflies tend to have more muted colours so chances are the next time you find yourself mesmerised by the elongated bodies of a winged creature, it is likely to be a more mature adult. Contrary to popular belief, dragonflies can live for around six months. However their natural predators, such as birds, can often abruptly shorten that lifespan.

Damselflies tend to live shorter lives and often only survive for a few weeks before they succumb to natural predators or simple accidents. Both damselflies and dragonflies spend a sizeable amount of their life in a larval state when they begin their lives in water and spend time maturing under the surface.

Although dragonflies and damselflies feast on smaller insects such as mosquitoes, it is not always realistic to expect the attraction of these beautiful creatures to your outdoor spaces to have a huge impact on the amount of red and itchy bumps you are likely to experience throughout the summer! 

However, if you are still keen to balance the ecological system in your garden or allotment, then you can proactively encourage dragonflies without completing an excessive landscaping project.

As dragonflies and damselflies are so reliant on water, why not introduce a small body of water into your garden? Extra points if there are a variety of depths for young dragonflies in their larval state. Also, don’t fill your pond with lots of plants, as clearer water is preferable – and keep it free from fish, as these are likely to eat young flies before they have a chance to spread their wings. Edging the pond with moss and rocks is also popular as these are good for sunbathing and laying eggs.

According to the Dragonfly Society, if your pond is suffering lower water levels in the warm weather during our summer months, then remember to top up from a garden water butt rather than a tap, as the chemicals and nutrients in our drinking water can introduce toxins to the critters that call the pond home.

Don’t forget to keep a notepad and pen on hand as well as your camera to capture any dragonflies and damselflies that you catch sight of at your pond – you can even take part in reporting your dragonfly spots!

If you can’t actively encourage dragonflies into your outdoor spaces, then why not pay a visit to Derbyshire’s Carr Vale Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Bolsover? This wetland reserve provides the perfect conditions for thriving communities of both dragonfly and damselfly and you might well spot varieties such as the emperor dragonfly, four-spotted chaser, ruddy darter and black-tailed skimmer. The Azure damselfly is one of the most common of the damselflies and can habitually be seen around bodies of water.

Yes, of all the wildlife that Derbyshire is blessed to enjoy, surely dragonflies and their slightly smaller relatives the damselflies must win the ‘best-dressed flying insect’ award. Next time you hear the unmistakable buzz of some insect winds, then do spare a thought for these beauties and their long heritage in our region before you reach for the newspaper!