Natural history illustrations of Common British Damselflies June 20th 2014

Story posted: Friday, 20. June 2014 by Lizzie Harper

Entomological illustrations and natural science illustrations of Odonata are not uncommon; and over the years I've completed many.

One might think the real challenge with such a subject is the wings; but that's not the case.  A damselfly wing is not a hard thing to render, so long as you have a fine tip to your brush (I favour winsor & newton series 7 00 brushes for this work).

Lizzie Harper entomological illustration of Large red damselfly

Large red damsefly pair mating (detail)

The hardest part of illustrating a damselfly is getting the tiny differences on the segments of the abdomen and on the thorax precisely right.  Thus far, the best resource for this information that I've found (other than a living specimen) is British Dragonflies by Smallshire & Swash.  Couple this with the resources available online through the British Dragonfly Society (BDS); and you're well on your way to being able to identify (and illustrate!) many of our Odonata.

Lizzie Harper scientific illustration of Large red damselfly life cycle

Life cycle of the Large red damselfly

Below are five of the commonest British damselflies.  There are 20 species in the UK, and all are members of the Zygoptera family.  Zygopterans can be distinguished form the stronger flying dragonflies quite easily.  They have thinner bodies, and hold their wings along their abdomens (except for the willow damsels). Each of their four wings is approximately the same size and shape.  They stay close to water, and often have a weak and fluttery flight.  Their larvae have three external gills (lamellae) at the tip of the abdomen, and can't easily be mistaken for amything but a young damselfly.

Lizzie Harper scientific illustration of damselfly nymph

Large red damselfly nymph

Easiest to identify, because of the dark and irridescent wings and body, is the Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo).  In all cases, the species illustrated is a male.

Lizzie Harper scientific illustration of Beautiful demoiselle

Beautiful demoiselle

Next is a very common damselfly, the Large red Pyrrhosoma nymphula (see above for its life-cycle).  This damsel varies a lot in colour, but can be distinguished by black legs and wing spots, and a black stripe on the side of its thorax.

Lizzie Harper natural history illustration of Large red damselfly copyright Jersey Post 2013

Large Red Damselfly stamp, copyright Jersey post 2013

Another common damselfly is the Common blue, Enallgma cyathigerum. This insect differs from other blue and black damsels in having no black "spur" marking on its thorax edge; and having broad stripes on the thorax edge.  It's medium size and will fly further from the water margins than other similar species.

Lizzie Harper natural history illustration of Common blue damselfly

Common Blue damsel

A similar damselfly is the Azure damsel, common across the UK (although rarer in Scotland).  I rather like the written description from Britain's Dragonflies by Smallshire and Swash, "Think of the male as a snooker player: he has a cue (the "spur" on the side of the thorax), wears a bow tie [on abdominal segment] S10 and carries a beer glass (S2)!" p.75

Lizzie Harper natural science illustration of Azure damselfly

Azure damselfly

The Blue-tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans) has an enormous amount of colour variation within its species.  Its abdomen is mainly black, and it has two-tone diamond wing spots.  Of all the damselflies, it spend the longest time mating (up to 6 hours) so if you see damsels in the distinctive "wheel" mating form (see the Large red damsel life cycle above) it may well be this species.

Lizzie Harper natural science illustration of Blue-tailed damselfly

Blue-tailed damselfly

These are the most abundant of the British damselflies across the UK, but are only 5 of the 20 species regularly recorded here.  Look out for them across lakes and still water, even ditches and puddles.  For a handy guide, it's worth investing in the Field Studies Council "Guide to dragonflies & damselflies of Britain" .

Next week: Dragonflies!

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