Have you ever spent time at a pond and seen a winged insect zip past your vision? Chances are, the beautiful buzzing creature that you saw was a dragonfly. Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata and the infraorder Anisoptera, meaning “unequal wing.” Not to be mistaken for the similar-looking damselfly, dragonflies are agile fliers and aerial predators. There exist more than 3,000 extant species of dragonflies, making them an extremely diverse group of insects.
While most dragonflies live in tropical regions, others live in more temperate zones. You can usually find them in wetland environments, such as rivers, lakes, marshes, or ponds. Although some species have long nymphal or infant stages, most adult dragonflies live only a few days or weeks. During that time, they have to make sure to eat enough food to have the energy to reproduce. That said, what do dragonflies eat?
In order to answer this question, we’ll have to examine the habitats of different dragonflies at their various lifecycle stages. We’ll explore what foods dragonflies commonly like to eat, as well as how they hunt for food. Furthermore, we’ll discuss what they eat in the wild compared to what captive dragonflies eat. Finally, we’ll dive into the diet of a nymphal or infant dragonfly. Keep on reading to learn all about what dragonflies eat.
What Do Dragonflies Like to Eat?
Dragonflies are almost exclusively carnivorous, meaning that they eat other animal matter. These aerial predators stalk and devour their prey with voracious appetites, and many are skilled hunters. In fact, they represent one of nature’s most efficient and ruthless hunters due to their predatory behavior and high success rate. Their diet includes a wide variety of other insects, typically ones smaller and less powerful.
Dragonflies need to eat a lot in order to have enough energy, so often focus on quantity over quality of their foods. They eat different foods depending on their lifecycle stage. Adult dragonflies tend to eat other flying insects, while nymphal dragonflies tend to eat ground-dwelling insects and animals.
To help answer the question “What do dragonflies eat,” we’ve identified 15 common foods in a dragonfly’s diet.
Dragonflies eat the following foods:
- Small fishes
Dragonflies will eat pretty much anything that is smaller than them. They aren’t picky eaters, and will even target smaller dragonflies when present. The typical dragonfly can eat up to a fifth of its one body weight each day, and some can eat even more. As such, they will eat pretty much anything that they can catch. That said, their favorite foods are mosquitoes and midges. Their ability to keep down mosquito populations makes them extremely useful in stopping the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses.
How Do Dragonflies Hunt For Food?
The first dragonflies emerged around 300 million years ago, making them one of the first winged insects. Some of the earliest dragonflies sported wingspans measuring nearly 2 feet long. While today’s modern dragonflies don’t measure nearly as large, they still possess keen senses. Unlike most insects, a dragonfly’s antennae are small and don’t help them to smell, taste, or touch. Instead, a dragonfly uses its antennae to help it fly. That said, some evidence suggests they possess rudimentary olfactory receptors. Dragonflies also cannot hear, like other insects, and instead, rely on their amazing eyesight to hunt. They possess huge, compound eyes equipped with binoculars and color vision. A dragonfly has a 360-degree field of vision, and nearly all of its brainpower is dedicated to processing images. Considering it can process nearly 300 images a second, they can practically see in slow motion.
Adult dragonflies catch their prey in midair. They can catch smaller prey only using their jaws, or they can wrap up larger insects with their spiny legs. If the prey is small enough, they will eat their meal in midair. Otherwise, a dragonfly will fly to a perch and consume its prey while seated. Their normal method is to first bite the head of their prey, and then consume the rest of the body. However, they will usually discard unwanted body parts, such as the wings. Meanwhile, infant dragonflies in the nymphal stage use their retractable mandibles to catch prey. They most often lie in hiding until an unsuspecting prey swims by. When the moment is right, they will lunge forward and catch their food into their mandibles. To generate force, they will draw in, then expel water from their anus. This allows them to rocket forward and take their prey unawares.
What Do Dragonflies Eat in the Wild?
In the wild, dragonflies are indiscriminate hunters, eating everything and anything they can catch. Given that dragonflies live in a variety of regions and habitats, they also eat a wide assortment of prey. That said, there exist some common themes in terms of what most wild dragonflies eat on a daily basis. In the nymphal stage, wild baby dragonflies eat aquatic insects, grubs, and larvae. Larger nymphs will also consume small fish, tadpoles, and even small frogs. For example, some larger nymphs will explode out of the water and attack small tree frogs. Meanwhile, adult dragonflies prefer to consume mostly flying insects. Their favorite targets include mosquitoes, gnats, and mayflies. That said, they will also eat beetles, flies, moths, butterflies, and even bees. So long as the other insect is smaller, an adult dragonfly will eat just about anything it can catch.
What Do Captive Dragonflies Eat?
While fun to raise, it can be difficult to raise dragonflies. If you plan to keep adult dragonflies, remember that they only live for a few weeks. Most people that decide to raise dragonflies will bring them up from their nymph stage. During this period, you can feed a baby dragonfly daphnia, insect larvae, worms, or even small tadpoles and fish. Just remember to only provide food that’s the same size or smaller than the dragonfly, and to replace uneaten food regularly. Adult dragonflies can be fed live mosquitoes, flies, gnats, bees, beetles, and even other dragonflies. They can eat dozens of mosquitoes in a single day, so make sure that you provide an adult dragonfly with enough food. Before providing new food to your pet dragonfly, always make sure to consult a local insect expert.
What Do Baby Dragonflies Eat?
Dragonflies do not have a pupal stage and instead, go through several nymphal stages before entering adulthood. They spend the vast majority of their lives as nymphs and may go through up to a dozen stages depending on the species. Baby dragonflies spend most of their time underneath the surface of the water. However, some species will also spend time outside of water, particularly when feeding. Their toothed mandibles can extend forward quickly, which allows them to catch prey. Some of their favorite foods include insect larvae and bloodworms. That said, they will also eat small fish and tadpoles. A select few species are large enough to attack and kill small frogs. If you’re raising baby dragonflies, you can try feeding them daphnia, otherwise known as water fleas. Other common feeds include mosquito and housefly larvae.
What Attracts Dragonflies to You?
Dragonflies may be dangerous to other insects, but they pose no threat to humans with one exception – if you hold them the wrong way their sharp, jaws may come into contact with you. Of course, they are also great in helping to rid your yard of mosquitoes so if you would like to attract them to you, or your gardens and yards, there are a few things that you can do.
- Have water nearby. As aquatic insects, dragonflies are attracted to water, and if you wish to draw them in, have a water feature, like a pond or fountain.
- Plant Black-Eyed Susans and Meadow Sage. These flowers will not only attract dragonflies but other insects that they might snack on.
- Let sunshine in. As they are ectothermic, dragonflies love sunlight, which regulates their body temperatures. If you want them to visit, make sure your garden or fountain is in an area that has full sun.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Photoongraphy/Shutterstock.com
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