They’re not dragons, and they’re not flies. But however inaptly they’re named, the stunt pilots of the insect world are attention–getters. They wear flashy colors; dart at speeds of up to 30 mph; boast ancestors that predate dinosaurs; mate in mid–air. Aggressive predators and carnivores, they’re out for blood—but not yours. What’s not to love?

Not much, a swelling fan base has decided, on national wildlife refuges and beyond. A crop of new field guides, mounting attendance at dragonfly festivals, and the spread of online dragonfly photos and other information all point one way: “People are fascinated with finding dragonflies and damselflies”—their biological cousins, says David True, refuge ranger at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. “It is a growing thing.”

Bruce Lund, with the Friends of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Nevada, agrees. He credits rising interest, in part, to two popular new field guides by zoologist Dennis Paulson and new state guides that help dragonfly enthusiasts identify their finds. Then there are the viewer–friendly habits of the insects themselves.

“People are attracted to these insects because they are big [compared to other insects], colorful, and active in daytime,” says Lund, who leads periodic refuge dragonfly tours. “They perch for long periods and keep returning to the same perches,” making them easier to photograph than butterflies, which stop less often and less predictably. Adults and children also like dragonflies’ fanciful names: vivid dancer, sparkling jewelwing, furtive forktail, stygian shadowdragon, harlequin darner, dragonhunter, ebony boghaunter are some highlighted on a fact sheet at Aransas Refuge.

For their parts, refuges are happy to host dragonflies not just because they’re native wildlife but because they’re natural mosquito controls and indicators of clean water. Dragonflies are generally most abundant in mid to late summer. Dragonflies and damselflies are members of the biological order odonata, meaning “toothed ones.” (“They don’t have teeth; don’t ask me why they’re called that,” says True.)

Refuges known for dragonflies include:

Bitter Lake Refuge, NM. The refuge plans to host its 12th annual dragonfly festival on September 7–8. Last year’s festival, which also celebrated the refuge’s 75th anniversary, drew more than 2,000 people, up from the usual 1,000 or so. More than 100 dragonfly or damselfly species have been spotted on the refuge, including the rare bleached skimmer. Peak dragonfly viewing is in July and August.

Patoka River Refuge, IN. Refuge wetlands host 30 species of dragonflies and 13 species of damselflies, including some rare kinds, a 2009 survey found. Three miles of refuge trails lead visitors through habitats where dragonflies can be seen. The Halloween pennant dragonfly, named for its orange and black wings, can be found at almost any refuge oxbow or wetland from mid–June through early October.

Aransas Refuge, TX. Dragonfly species there include red saddlebags and wandering gliders.

Desert Refuge Complex, NV. The complex, which includes Ash Meadows, Desert, Moapa Valley and Pahranagat Refuges, recently completed surveys of its dragonflies and damselflies. Biologists and volunteers documented 35 dragonfly species, including two found in Nevada for the first time.

Susan Morse is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.

Did You Know?

  • Dragonflies have two sets of wings, which they flap at about 30 beats per second.
  • Dragonflies have huge compound eyes, which give them almost 360–degree vision.
  • Dragonflies develop a taste for meat early. As nymphs, they snack on water insects, worms, mosquito larvae and small fish.
  • Dragonflies don’t have stingers and can’t harm you. Myths abound about dragonflies.