There’s something magically unnerving about Dragonflies (Odonatas) and it’s more than just the name. A big Hawker buzzing you in it’s territory can be disconcerting, even other-worldly, especially considering they have been around some 350 million years when dinosaur dragonflies had a 2.5′ (76cm) wingspan!

Seen at close quarters they are stunning; bejewelled fairy fast jets with sparkling, filigree wings…

Southern Hawker Dragonfly drying out on net
Drying out after rescue from falling into the pond before wings were dry

And they provide an intriguing way to talk about death with your wild kids! Random I know. So where to begin?

I photographed these Southern Hawkers (Britain’s most common Dragonfly) in my parents’ Cotswold garden in June 2007. They appeared overnight, leaving dessicated larva cases attached to water irises in the pond and literally hung around to dry and redistribute body fluids. Young dragonflies, or tenerals, have vibrantly sparkling wings for several hours until they dry out.

It was mesmerising watching them in the sun before flying off – I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use the pictures ever since! But how do they help us with death??

Two empty dragonfly larva cases hanging under leaves of aquatic plants in pond
Empty Dragonfly larva cases attached to pond plants
Newly emerged Southern Hawker Dragonfly hanging to dry from larval case on pond plant
Young Dragonfly, or Teneral, drying out on it’s empty larva case

We Need to Talk About Death

With Caroline’s cancer diagnosis and my best friend dying in March, death has been heavily on my mind this year. A relative gave me an intriguing booklet, Water Bugs and Dragonfiles, by Doris Stickney, explaining the concept of death to children, using the dragonfly life cycle, and though it doesn’t quite cover my own thoughts on spirituality in death, it provides a useful tool for discussing death with your kids of the wild…keep reading!

Dragonfly Lifecycle

UK Dragonflies live from about two weeks to a couple of months on the wing, enough time to mate and lay eggs in water.

The eggs hatch into larva, or nymphs, from between 2-5 weeks and several months and live underwater for up to two years where they can moult 15 times.

In the right temperature and weather conditions the nymphs climb up the stems of aquatic plants.

Above the water line the nymphs attach themselves to stems or leaves where the transformation to dragonfly takes place.

They hang for several hours to dry then fly off to hunt other insects, mate, lay eggs and die.

The cycle repeats.

Death by Dragonfly

Doris Stickney’s Water Bugs and Dragonflies offers a child’s perspective on what the nymphs think and talk about when they see others disappearing up the plant stems, how they make a pact to return and tell the others where they go and how the transformed dragonfly is unable to get back under the water so enjoys it’s new life in the air, able to see the nymphs but not get to them.

It’s a great place to start discussion on the concepts of death, transformation and the soul.


What is a Dragonfly?

noun: dragonfly; plural noun: dragonflies


any predatory insect of the suborder Anisoptera, having a large head and eyes, a long slender body, two pairs of iridescent wings that are outspread at rest, and aquatic larvae: order Odonata. See also damselfly


any other insect of the order Odonata
Semi-dried Southern Hawker Dragonfly hanging from net large
This one is hanging from the anti-heron net over the pond!

Dragonfly Facts

  • Dragonflies have four wings
  • They can fly sideways, backwards, even hovering for a minute by moving each wing separately, creating incredible agility of flight
  • Dragonflies always keep their wings open at rest, whereas Damselflies close theirs
  • Dragonflies are known by different names around the world. A good one, if true, is linked to the ancient Celts – Big Needle of Wings!
  • They do not have a sting nor bite humans though they do have teeth to devour prey
  • Dragonflies have almost 360 degree vision, with 30,000 facets to their eyes
  • There are 30 species of UK and Ireland dragonfly and some 5,000 worldwide
  • The fastest recorded dragonfly was 36 mph in Australia

When and Where to Spot UK Dragonflies?

The best time to see dragonflies on the wing is June to September and Collins do a great basic spotters photo guide, British Insects, for identification.

This useful chart from the British Dragonfly Society shows where to spot the various species and please see the brilliant ID comparison image I’ve included below if you’re not sure which dragonfly you’ve seen.

Dragonfly Identification

This brilliant montage is courtesy of John Curd who put it together for UK Dragonflies & Damselflies (see link below). It’s a great comparison for the UK Hawker dragonflies. Many thanks for sharing your image John.

Image of various dragonflies in a row for ID purposes
John Curd’s excellent dragonfly identification aid

Wildlife Gardening for Dragonflies

If you have a garden pond large enough you may be able to attract dragonflies. To ensure that metamorphosis can take place the pond must have tall water plants with straight stems for the nymphs to climb and attach to. For more on wildlife gardening see my Gardening pages.

More info

For more dragonfly details and to record sightings, see the British Dragonfly Society or join the Facebook group UK Dragonflies & Damselflies.