Dragonflies: Stalking & Photographing Nature’s “Mosquito Hawks” in the Urban Landscape

Dragonfly in sunset.

I’ve been reading this really great book called Chasing Dragonflies by Cindy Crosby.  She’s a naturalist and natural history teacher with a special passion for studying dragonflies. 

Reading about her dragonfly-chasing adventures has taken me back to the early days of my garden and my photography. Back when I was just beginning to fall in love with the insects that were showing up in the garden, I decided to learn digital photography so I could capture what I was seeing and share it with others.

Dragonflies were some of the earliest creatures I photographed, and I too have chased or “stalked” these iridescent acrobats around my landscape and nearby water sources.

yellow and black dragonfly

Welcoming Nature's Moquito Hawks to the Urban Garden

If you spend any time at all observing nature in a garden, chances are you’ve been treated to the dazzling aerial displays of dragonflies darting through the air. These prehistoric-looking insects with their elongated bodies, bulging eyes, and gossamer wings are fascinating.

Dragonflies play an important role in backyard ecosystems as insect predators. And if you’re a gardener with rural or country roots, you may know these insects by some of their endearing folk names like “snake doctors,” “mosquito hawks,” and “darner needles.”

Dragonflies rank among the most beneficial insects you could hope to have patrolling your garden landscape and ponds. 

Small dragonfly on cilantro flower
Dragonflies hunt insects in the garden making them great help with pest control.

The Role of Dragonflies in the Garden

Besides being a joy to observe, dragonflies are welcome residents in the garden.

As larvae in the water, dragonfly nymphs are aquatic predators that feed on mosquito larvae, as well as other aquatic insects. Once they transform into their winged adult form, dragonflies take to the air in pursuit of adult mosquitoes and flies, and pretty much any other insect unlucky enough to cross their path.

An adult dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes and other insects in a single day, making them one of the most prolific pest controllers in the backyard garden. Because of their fondness for mosquitoes, they are sometimes called “mosquito hawks.”

It’s hard to overstate just how valuable dragonflies can be for an organic garden or natural backyard landscape. Beyond their pest control services, their presence is also an indicator of a healthy aquatic ecosystem as the dragonfly life cycle is dependent on clean water sources.

an eastern amberwing dragonfly
An Eastern Amberwing is a smaller species of dragonfly.

Dragonflies in Folklore

If you grew up in the rural South like me, you may have heard dragonflies referred to by their folk names like “snake doctor.”  My own grandparents perpetuated the old superstition that dragonflies would follow snakes around. The old Southern belief behind this was that they’d stitch up any injuries the snake suffered, and even put a severed snake back together if it had been cut into pieces.

So if we saw a dragonfly hovering and zig-zagging through the air, my Granny told us to watch out: a snake was sure to be nearby. This made the otherwise harmless dragonfly seem a bit more sinister back when I was a kid. But that initial fear that linked dragonflies to snake sightings went away once I started following them around to capture their beauty in photographs.

A close up of a brown saddleback dragonfly
This large saddleback dragonfly was one of the first I captured when I first took up nature photogprahy.

Another common folk name is “devil’s darning needle.” This belief may have originated from the dragonfly’s appearance seeming to stitch the air together with its wings as it hovers and darts every which way. 

That may also harken back to the childhood tale warning that if you told a lie, a dragonfly would magically appear to stitch your mouth shut. This myth is intertwined with the common darner, a large dragonfly species. The name “darner” originates from the stories carried over by early settlers from England and Europe, which have endured through generations to the present day.

Dragonflies were also dubbed “hobgoblin flies” due to old Swedish folklore, which suggested that goblins, elves, and fairies utilized dragonflies as instruments for twisting and sewing.

While it’s fun to think about these old wives’ tales about snake stitching and fairy clothes mending, the reality is dragonflies pose no threat to humans. In fact, their presence is a sign of a healthy ecosystem for backyards and gardens.

Brown dragonfly resting on plants
I often find lethargic dragonflies resting in the garden plants early in the morning.

Attracting Dragonflies to the Urban Garden

If you live in the country near a lake or pond, you probably have no shortage of dragonflies around. 

Even in urban and suburban areas, though, it’s possible to create hospitable habitats for dragonflies. All it takes is a water source for breeding and some thoughtful landscaping choices. Here are some tips for turning your yard into a dragonfly hot spot:

  • Install a small pond or water garden. Dragonflies need still or slow-moving fresh water for their aquatic nymph stage.
  • Plant native plant species and a variety of nectar-producing plants that draw in insects which provide food sources for adult dragonflies.
  • Add structure in the garden to provide perches for adults. I noticed early on that plant stakes, tomato cages, and tall plant stems were favorite landing spots for dragonflies and damselflies who would perch for long periods of time.
  • Create a basking area with flat rocks, wood, or gravel near the water where dragonflies can sun themselves. The warm rocks around our little frog pond as well as the edges of our raised beds are prime real estate for dragonflies to catch some rays in summer.
  • Limit insecticides and avoid water contamination to protect dragonfly larvae and eggs. The more healthy and balanced you allow your ecosystem to be, the more insects will visit, and the more dragonflies will come for those insects.
brown dragonfly perched on a plant stake
Dragonflies LOVE perching on tomato stakes or any other tall skinny structure. Look at that cute little face!

The Difference Between Dragonflies and Damselflies

When I began photographing dragonflies in the garden many years ago, I noticed right away there was a smaller, often shiny blue type that would come around.  It looked like a dragonfly but with specific differences.  Turns out, it was actually a damselfly.

Both dragonflies and damsels are flying insects in the order Odonata, meaning “toothed ones” in Latin. They both have the parts of an insect we learned in grade school biology: head, thorax, abdomen, six legs, four wings, and two antennae.

Dragonflies, belonging to the suborder Epiprocta, typically have a bulkier build, large compound eyes positioned close together, and wings spread upward or outward when at rest.

A blue damselfly eating a spider
Look close. This blue damselfly is munching on a tiny spider.

On the other hand, damselflies, classified under the suborder Zygoptera, tend to be more slender in shape, with eyes spaced farther apart and wings folded neatly together along their bodies when at rest. That wing position difference is how I learned to spot a damsel versus a dragonfly.

Of course there are exceptions on the size. Take the Halloween Pennant, for example, which is a smaller dragonfly, as is the Eastern Amberwing which is one of the smaller odonates I have photographed in the garden. It reaches no more than 25mm in length.

A desert firetail damselfy
I found this Desert Firetail damselfly hanging out in the peppermint. I wonder if he liked the scent of the plant or was just hunting some yummy insects.

Tips for Photographing Dragonflies

Dragonflies have always captured our imaginations. In addition to all the folklore, myths, and mysticism where dragonflies appear, think of all art they’ve inspired.

Dragonflies not only adorn clothing, housewares, and jewelry. They also serve as a muse for poetry and artwork. I can’t draw or paint to save my life, but I do express my creativity through photography. And no creature is quite as photogenic as a dragonfly.

I call it dragonfly stalking because I usually have to sneak up on them to get the shot.  In the summer I often find them in the morning in the garden before the sun is really bright. They seem to be more still at that time and often covered in dew which makes for an interesting macro photo.

When the sun comes out, it’s a little more difficult. They become more active and dart around hunting insects. The direct sunlight is also more harsh during the middle of the day so I find that my best shots are at sunup, sundown, or if I can find one in the shade.

A green pondhawk dragonfly on a grass blade.
I stalked this Pondhawk for a long while near a local pond. He kept returning to this blade of grass. I love his green and black patterns.

Finding Dragonflies Outside of the Garden

I also go to a nearby pond where I am sure to find lots of dragonflies perched on grass blades near the water. I have noticed that many often return to one place to rest over and over again while hunting. So I look for these resting spots such as overhanging branches or grass reeds, and position myself nearby with my camera ready for the dragonfly to return and rest.

This method can prove highly effective, especially during the day when they are most active.  And call me crazy, but after years of stalking dragonflies and damselflies, I swear they even start to get used to me. There have been many times I start out trying to photograph one that is being very shy and won’t let me get close enough. But if I stick with it, gradually I can get closer and closer without it flying off. 

I use my Canon 100mm macro lens to capture the incredible detail of both the wings and the face. You can get really creative by using smaller and larger apertures to capture wing detail or to give the wings a soft blur and capture the body or face.

Close up of dragonfly eyes
I stalked this one for quite a while before it let me get super close for this macro shot of its two compounds eyes. Each compound eye is comprised of several thousand lenses.

Final Thoughts

I suggest any gardener or nature lover pick up the book Chasing Dragonflies and feast on its gorgeous illustrations and passionate writing about these magical creatures.

Then create your own dragonfly-friendly ecosystem, and sit back and enjoy these remarkable insects. And if you happen to spot one hovering near the ground or resting nearby, grab your camera and start stalking. 

Do you have fond memories or stories about dragonflies?

Transparent veined wings of a dragonfly
The iridescent veined wings are my favorite part to photograph.
Blue damselfies on flowers
A group of blue damselfies I found on some flowers in a nearby park.

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Cultivating Nature's Wisdom

I’m a nature photographer and gardener sharing how I created an ecological garden in a small suburban backyard. I also share a few tips for growing and using herbs to craft your own homegrown spice blends.

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