Dragonflies and damselflies at Runnymede and Ankerwycke
Each year between May and September, the meadows and waterways of Runnymede and Ankerwycke come alive with activity as large numbers of damselflies and dragonflies dart around in the sun. Across the two sites, 27 different species of dragonfly and damselfly have been recorded - one of the highest numbers on any National Trust site in the country.
Dragonflies and damselflies belong to an ancient order of species known as Odonata, which has been around for over 250 million years. Long ago they looked quite different to what we are used to today, as the extra-high oxygen levels in the Earth’s atmosphere allowed them to become giants with wingspans of up to 65cm.
Today, the largest dragonflies you will find are emperors (Anax imperator), whose wingspans can be as wide as 9cm. Despite shrinking significantly since the Carboniferous period, Odonata are no less spectacular, with their shimmering bodies fluttering and darting across the countryside in the sunshine.
Finding dragonflies and damselflies at Runnymede and Ankerwycke
There are several good places to spot dragonflies and damselflies at Runnymede and Ankerwycke. Common blue and azure damselflies love the long grass and wildflowers of the Runnymede meadows, while demoiselles and red-eyed damselflies can be seen in plenty along the river Thames.
Dragonflies can also be spotted along the river and in the meadows, but the best displays are at Runnymede and Ankerwycke’s ponds. Langham Pond at Runnymede is a particularly beautiful spot to enjoy a sunny afternoon watching out for them; in one visit it would not be unusual to see common darters, ruddy darters, emperors, brown hawkers and migrant hawkers, as well as a plethora of damselflies.
A pair of binoculars will allow you to get an extra good look, but if you spot one and it flies off, don’t worry – try sitting still for a few minutes, as dragonflies are territorial and so likely to return to the same patch.
Spotting the difference
So how can you tell the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly? It's easy. The quickest way to identify is how they hold their wings. When they land and sit still, damselflies will close their wings over their abdomens, while dragonflies will hold them flat and open. Damselflies are also much smaller, more slender and more delicate than dragonflies.
A complete lifecycle
The reason most damselflies and dragonflies can be so commonly found near water is because this is where most species lay their eggs and where the larvae develop. You can often see them sitting on vegetation at the surface of the pond, dipping the tips of their abdomens into the water – this is a female laying her eggs.
After the eggs hatch, dragonflies spend most of their lifecycle under water as larvae – up to two years, feeding on small invertebrates, especially insects and sometimes even tadpoles or small fish. Larvae will shed their skin several times during this part of their life, before crawling up onto vegetation fringing the water’s edge where they will shed their final skin and emerge as the beautiful flying adult that we are used to seeing.
The old skin left behind in the vegetation is called the exuvia. For most species in this country the adult stage rarely lasts more than a fortnight – just long enough to mate and lay some eggs to start the next generation.
Sadly, many of the waterways that dragonflies and damselflies use to breed are being damaged or destroyed by human activity and by changes to the countryside that have taken place over recent decades. That's why it's extremely important to conserve their remaining habitat, and why we actively manage our part of the countryside for their benefit.