Damselflies (suborder Zygoptera) are different. There are other groups of insects with a similarly slender build and long, narrow wings. As you continue reading keep in mind these damselfly characteristics which, collectively, rule out these other insects:
- often brightly colored (most often with blue), except for tenerals/immatures and many females
- antennae inconspicuously short and very thin
- two pairs of wings (although difficult to tell when closed over the abdomen)
- legs relatively short and thin
- very agile fliers, including hovering
Here are three groups of insects which have, in my experience, been mistaken for damselflies:
|An adult antlion on the John Day|
The easiest way to know that you’re looking at an antlion is the presence of long, stout, almost comical antennae which curve a little bit at the tip. These are very different from the short hairlike antennae of damselflies. Just like damselflies, antlions possess two pairs of wings, but they are often finely speckled with dark pigment which is something you don’t see on damsels. Adult antlions are also typically nocturnal unlike damselflies, but I have scared them up from brush during the daytime. And they are very weak fliers compared to damsels. When I flush antlions during the day, they seem to fly in any random direction until they “crash” into another perch. Damselflies are far more agile and graceful on the wing.
Of the non-damselflies discussed here, the antlions are most similar to damsels. The Dragonfly Woman even devoted a couple of posts relevant to the topic: one on their similarity and how to tell them apart here; and another one here on artwork which is supposed to depict dragonflies or damselflies, but frequently depict antlions instead (this bugs me too).
|A large crane fly in Vancouver, Washington.|
One feature of crane flies which distinguishes them from damselflies right away is their very long, very thin, gangly legs. In fact, in the UK and Ireland crane flies are commonly known as “daddy long-legs”, a name often used for long-legged arachnids in the US and Canada. Also, like all Diptera, crane flies only have one pair of wings—the rear pair evolved into the small, knobbed halteres, and the bigger crane flies frequently perch with their wings open which makes it easy to see that there is only one pair. Something else to look for is the elongated “snout”—something you’ll never see on a damselfly.
Robber Flies (Order Diptera, Family Asilidae): These diverse predatory flies are, for the most part, not easily confused with damselflies. However, I have seen the relatively large and slender Efferia (in the Pacific Northwest, fairly common in arid areas east of the Cascades) mistaken for damselflies. Just like the crane flies, these have only one pair of wings but it’s difficult to tell because they usually perch with the wings closed.
|A robber fly, Efferia, with prey on the John Day River, Oregon.|
So, with a good look at one or two details, you should not confuse any of these non-damselflies with real damsels. These are all interesting insects, and I think they deserve to be recognized for what they are, even if they aren’t odonates—my favorite insects, of course. Can you think of any other insects which are, or could be, mistaken for damselflies (or dragonflies for that matter)?