Damsels and Dragons on the Riverside

Damsels and Dragons on the Riverside
July 1, 2020 Adrian Walters

High summer is the time of damsels and dragons. However, far from being in distress, the damsels positively cavort around the riverside in all their colourful finery. The dragons on the other hand are less interested in eating the damsels, although that can happen, generally preferring smaller fare such as midges and mosquitoes.

The Sudbury riverside is one of the most important locations in Suffolk for dragonflies and the smaller damselflies with a diverse range of species present. From spring to late autumn these incredible insects can be seen along the various waterways and on bright sunny days they patrol their territories, seek partners, and lay eggs, known as ovipositing, or rest on vegetation. Although the damsels are smaller than their dragon relatives, there are also some surprisingly large species. The dragons come in as chasers, darters, skimmers, and hawkers which admirably describes their flight characteristics. Perhaps the greatest of them all in our part of the world is the male green and blue clothed Emperor which, in July, can be seen patrolling any stretch of ditch or river.

Climate change is, by and large, the friend of these insects as they thrive in the heat. Take a look at any sheltered ditch or pond on a warm sunny day and you will see these often vividly coloured insects going about their business. The adults, however, have a short life of weeks relative to their larval stage which stretches over years. They are fascinating to watch as they go about their business of patrolling territories, clashing wings with intruders, or laying eggs in the specific manner of their species; some carefully inserting eggs into vegetation or floating pieces of wood while others drop them into the water in a more cavalier fashion.

Whilst prettiness is in the eye of the beholder, the Banded Demoiselle’s very name speaks of chic elegance. During July, the metallic blue-black males can sometimes be seen gathered in large numbers on sheltered stands of vegetation. When disturbed, they flutter into the air creating a wonderful spectacle; it really is one of the not to be missed sights of summer. These, along with the Beautiful Demoiselle which does not yet occur in Sudbury, are our largest damselflies and for sheer elegance and beauty, they are unsurpassed. The female is attractive and graceful, clothed in emerald green although she is a little harder to spot camouflaged against the tall emergent vegetation along water courses.

Interestingly, the colours that we see on some of the male dragonflies comes in the form of a powder or ‘pruinescence’ that develops as they mature. In some species, such as the Scarce Chaser, it is easy to see whether the males have partnered as they lose two semi-circles of blue pruinescence where the females hold on to their consorts.