Dragonflies are among the most graceful — yet ferocious — insect predators in the animal kingdom. They have the ability to hover languidly like a helicopter or zip by at breakneck speeds and snatch unsuspecting prey out of thin air.
“Dragonflies are some of the most ancient and audacious animals on the planet,” said Bryan Pfeiffer, president of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas. “They are spectacular insects, really elegant and forceful expressions of life in the wild, even in your own backyard.”
Attracting any of the over 150 species of dragonflies in Maine to your yard is not only healthy for local ecosystems, but also provides endless potential for observation and entertainment.
Phillip deMaynadier, wildlife biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), said that the first thing to note is that when people say “dragonflies,” they are almost always talking about the insects in the order Odonata, which includes both dragonflies and their close cousins, damselflies.
“Some people think that damselflies are female dragonflies, which is kind of a cute and charming thought, but it’s not true,” deMaynadier said.
Damselflies are generally thinner and hold their wings folded in when they land, as opposed to out like an airplane as dragonflies do. Both, though, are spectacular aerial acrobats that will dine ravenously on mosquitoes, black flies and other flying nuisances.
Dragonflies and mosquitoes
Dragonflies’ insatiable appetite for mosquitoes, black flies and other flying insects make them appealing to homeowners looking to control pest populations in their yard.
“Dragonflies get used to people, and if you’re outside, they’ll hover right in front of your face and pick [mosquitoes and black flies] off,” Jim Dill, pest management specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said. “It’s a good thing to have in your yard.”
Be warned, though: attracting dragonflies will not solve your mosquito ills.
“It’s understandable to seek out dragonflies as natural, chemical-free mosquito control, but insects are so diverse and so well-adapted to their own complex lives that I think we may be exercising a bit of hubris to recruit them to make our own lives more comfortable,” Pfeiffer said. “They’re not really here to serve us.”
For example, Pfeiffer said to consider the daily life of a dragonfly.
“Mosquitoes are most active [during the] early morning and dusk, through sunset,” Pfeiffer said. “Dragonflies fly around in the sunshine in the middle of the day when mosquitoes are not as active. You’re going to be a better means of mosquito control than the dragonflies will be.”
Mainers should also resist the urge to import dragonfly nymphs from biological supply companies to manage mosquitoes, which deMaynadier said has been a common practice for some towns and land trusts in the southern part of the state, as well as for private landowners, for the last 40 years. These practices can bring invasive species into Maine, especially considering that the biological supply companies are all based out-of-state and provide species of Odonata that are not native to Maine.
“We don’t know what other consequences when you introduce high quantities of a top predator into the state,” deMaynadier said. “That’s my greatest concern.”
Plus, importing dragonflies doesn’t work to control mosquitoes, according to a study deMaynadier co-authored in 2020 using baby pools filled with dragonfly nymphs in a controlled forest setting.
“We found no significant effect of dragonfly nymphal predation on mosquito larvae,” deMaynadier said. “Other natural predators were dipping into those pools just as much as the dragonflies.”
How to attract dragonflies to your yard
The first step to attracting dragonflies to your land is to make your yard more hospitable to insects in general by planting a diversity of flowers in your garden that will attract the bugs that dragonflies like to eat.
“The best thing I could say is to have a good variety of flowers,” Dill said. “If you go out, you will see dragonflies sitting on goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace or petunias.”
There are no flowers themselves that are particularly attractive to dragonflies because they are more interested in their prey.
“It’s just having lots of different things there that will attract other insects that will be flying so the dragonflies can go after them,” Charlene Donahue, retired entomologist for the Maine Forest Service, said.
Also, Donahue said to stop using pesticides — even those used to keep mosquitoes at bay — if you want to create an attractive space for dragonflies.
“One of the biggest things you can do is reduce the amount of pesticides that you use so that they’re not exposed to them, just like everything else,” Donahue said. “Our whole ecosystem, everything is connected. If you’re killing mosquitoes, you’re killing all the other insects, too.”
If you are a true dragonfly aficionado, you can consider adding a water feature to your yard as well. It should be large enough for dragonflies to breed — at least a couple dozen square feet, and a few feet deep — and you should not add fish to the feature if your goal is to see dragonflies, as they will eat the nymphs. Know, too, that standing water may also attract mosquitoes.
“You need water to have dragonflies, and water is where mosquitoes breed,” Pfeiffer said. “If you create a water feature to bring dragonflies to your property, you will also be attracting mosquitos [and] creating mosquito habitat.”
DeMaynadier said that the best water features for dragonflies are dechlorinated, naturalized ones with a vegetation buffer between the pond and the rest of your yard. Also, deMaynadier said that water movement, like a waterfall in the backyard garden pool, seems to be less attractive to mosquitoes and more attractive to dragonflies.
“[Dragonflies] do better the more you can recreate a natural setting,” deMaynadier said. “Mosquitoes will tolerate the most homogenous, man-made water [features]. Oversimplified, eyecandy-type wetlands risk creating a mosquito haven that isn’t suitable for [dragonflies].”
A better method to attract dragonflies, deMaynadier said, would be to conserve and enhance the natural water features that you have by you.
“That involves a compromise,” deMaynadier said. “Whether they’re flowing streams or rivers or standing ponds, [wetlands] benefit from a buffer of natural vegetation. The bigger the buffer, the better, but certainly not a mowed strip or just leaving down to the marsh. You want to let natural succession take place, in its messy and disorderly way.”
If the idea of bringing more mosquitoes to your yard is too much, Pfeiffer said you can still observe dragonflies in the wild anywhere there are healthy aquatic ecosystems: lakes, ponds, wetlands, bogs, rivers, streams and brooks.
“There are suites of dragonfly species that you will only find in running water in rivers,” Pfeiffer said. “In a wonderful, wild state like Maine, wherever you find wild water, you will find dragonflies and damselflies.”