Want to attract dragonflies to your garden? It’s all about water, plants, and animals. You’ll need a pond with aquatic plants and diverse natural habitat to support native wildlife including pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Dragonflies rely on ponds throughout their life cycles. This advice for starting a new garden pond will help determine if a pond is a good choice for your garden.
We’ve had a stellar show of dragonflies this year in the garden. They range from various tiny species, just an inch or so long. Others look huge—by dragonfly standards—like funny, big-eyed helicopters whirring about.
While you’ll occasionally see them gathering in swarms, adult dragonflies are territorial, focussed on protecting food sources, and scouting for potential mates.
What attracts dragonflies to the garden?
What is it they need to survive and thrive?
And what can we do as gardeners to support these fantastic flying insects?
As with all conservation efforts, it takes a natural village—a whole ecosystem—to support any species.
Everything that lives in our gardens (and nature) is interdependent. Efforts to attract and support one species succeed when we also support everything they rely on—and vice versa.
Water, plants, and other animals all matter.
And, as you’ll see, growing a dragonfly garden will benefit your garden as a whole.
Not really. It is misleading to say dragonflies will reduce the mosquito population to a level where we would notice it. In a laboratory setting, dragonflies can eat a hundred mosquitoes per day. But, in the wild, they eat an assortment of invertebrates—not just mosquitoes. Considering how many mosquitoes there are, dragonflies are not going to make any appreciable reduction to that pesky population.
Gardening For Dragonflies
- A pond or similar body of water is essential for all stages of a dragonfly’s life including mating, nymph development, and overwintering.
- Aquatic plants should vary in height, above and below the water surface.
- Dragonflies are carnivores and eat a variety of bugs. Grow the plants that attract their prey.
- Ensure plants, trees, and shrubs help block strong winds and provide shelter from rain.
- Avoid using pesticides, herbicides, bug zappers, and fly strips. All of these can kill dragonflies and poison them or their food sources.
These tips share ways to provide the food and habitat dragonflies and damselflies need throughout their life cycles from egg to nymph (aquatic larval phase) to adulthood. You can read more about dragonfly life cycles here. It comes down to water (a pond), aquatic plants, and a healthy garden habitat that supports everything dragonflies eat.
1Add a Pond
- A year-round, fresh water pond with varying water depths and an assortment of plants will benefit dragonflies throughout their life stages.
Dragonflies breed near water, lay their eggs in or near water, and, as nymphs (larvae), live a majority of their life in water. Yes—dragonflies need water!
To provide what they need, you’ll need a pond. A birdbath or other small container of water is not going to suffice.
Research on dragonflies tends to focus on natural settings with large bogs, ponds, or wetlands, but those are much larger than most of us can have in our yards.
In my own experience, a small garden pond can work too—even in a cold climate, so long as the pond has varying water depths, an assortment of aquatic plants, and does not freeze up.
Depending on the species, dragonfly nymphs can live for months or years in water before reaching adulthood. This means they will spend one or more winters in your pond.
I keep a submersible recirculating pump running for this reason—ensuring all the creatures overwintering in there (frogs, fish, nymphs, and more) have plenty of oxygen and do not get trapped in ice, no matter how cold it is.
The pond should also be as naturalized as possible with its own healthy ecosystem. You would never want “clean” or chlorinated water—we want life in there including lots of natural food sources for the nymphs.
To give you an idea of what works where I am (Ontario, Canada, hardiness zone 6b), these are the sizes of my two small ponds. Our winters drop to lows around -10°C (14°F).
I have found nymphs in both and enjoy lots of dragonflies each year.
- The larger pond is 8×10 feet (and a few feet deep) with running water.
- The smaller pond is approximately 6-feet in diameter and two feet deep with minimal water movement.
Studies show some species prefer still water while others like some water movement, so this may be why each of my ponds appeals to some and not others.
2Grow Aquatic Plants
- In addition to fresh pond water all year-round, dragonflies need aquatic plants at varying heights and depths.
Plants are important both within the pond and the surrounding garden.
Within the pond, plants act as ladders and perches. This is why its important to have a variety of plants at all different heights and depths, shapes, and sizes, within the pond, at surface level, and above.
Imagine the nymph, all done its larval stages and ready to move to land and become an adult. Not yet able to fly, it must climb out of the water, relying on the pond plants to provide a ramp to reach the shore.
From there, life is still very much centered around the pond.
You’ll see adult dragonflies perched on pond plants, warming in the sun, resting, on the lookout for predators, scouting for mates, and mating. Some lay their eggs directly in the water, others lay them on floating plants. It’s a water-centric life.
When choosing aquatic plants, find a resource for recommended native species. There are many pond plants available at nurseries that are so aggressive or invasive you’ll regret them forever. Even native species will need dividing at some point, a task I dreaded until I finally bought good waders.
3Grow Bugs & Plants
- To attract dragonflies, you need dragonfly food. This means growing plants that attract and sustain the animals they eat.
What Adult Dragonflies Eat
- Dragonflies & damselflies
- Praying mantises
What Dragonfly Nymphs Eat
- Other animal larvae
- Small fish
- Various crustaceans
So, how do you grow dragonfly food?
You grow a healthy, diverse garden that supports the wildlife they rely on.
Unlike some animals in our gardens that rely on plants for food like some butterflies and their larval host plants, dragonflies are carnivores which means their food source is other animals.
They eat mosquitoes, flies, small midges, butterflies, bees, moths, damselflies, and—yes—other dragonflies.
Nymphs eat anything they can find in the water including tadpoles and other larvae—so long as they are small enough to devour.
Before you lament dragonflies eating some of our favorite pollinators like butterflies and bees, understand it is a food chain.
Yes, dragonflies gobble up those animals, but plenty of others—mainly birds and amphibians—rely on dragonflies as part of their diets too.
To grow food for dragonflies means to grow a garden that attracts and supports the animals they eat to survive. When nature works as intended, there’s lots to go around.
Bonus for My Fellow Nature Nerds: If you get the chance, observe how dragonflies eat—it’s similar to preying mantises and quite intriguing. They grip their prey with their jointed legs while using their jagged mandibles (jaws with serrated edges) to break apart and devour their catch.
Plants To Grow
The plant list for a dragonfly garden includes all the plants, trees, and shrubs that support their prey. And their prey’s prey.
If your local pollinators need it, grow it.
Plants are also used for refuge. Good dragonfly habitat includes trees and shrubs that offer protection from strong winds, provides places to warm in the sun, and shelter from rain.
Here in colder regions of Canada and the United States, herbaceous flowering native plant options include:
- Asters (Aster spp.)
- Bee balm (Monarda)
- Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
- Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
- Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
- Lupine (Lupinus perennis)
- Spotted jewelweed (Impatiens biflora)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
A good local resource will suggest both native plant options and other suitable plants as well as list invasive plants to avoid.
Kestrels & Dragonflies
Some years ago, researchers discovered migrating kestrels follow dragonflies on their migratory routes—a clever way to ensure they have food available throughout their journey.
4Stop Using Pesticides and Bug Zappers
- There is no sense in attracting wildlife to our gardens only to greet them with toxic food sources or traps.
It sounds dramatic, but unless you are certain the plant or product is absolutely safe for all—and you want a garden that supports the local ecosystem—why take the chance?
If you’re buying plants, find sources that have not used harmful sprays during the growing process.
Within your own garden, avoid using any pesticides and herbicides. If they don’t harm the dragonflies directly, they are likely harming one of their food sources—or that of another animal reliant on your garden. To poison one is to poison all.
A good example is caterpillars. Caterpillars are the larval stage of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera order). Caterpillars must eat plants to survive. Some are host-specific like monarchs with their milkweed, others are generalists and can eat a variety of plants. Either way, if their food is poisoned, it’s game over. Even if the caterpillar doesn’t die, the bird that eats it might.
This explains more on the pros and cons of using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for caterpillar control, along with tips for identifying types of caterpillars.
Also, commercial bug zappers designed to eliminate flies and mosquitoes also kill dragonflies and other flying creatures that unwittingly approach them. Same goes for sticky traps—anything non-select is clearly not worth the collateral damage.
How To Tell a Dragonfly From a Damselfly
Dragonflies and damselflies both belong to the Odonata order. While their behaviors are essentially the same, there are visual clues for telling them apart.
- Larger, bulkier body
- Larger eyes, close together on head
- Wings stay open at rest (cannot fold up)
- More adept at flying than damselflies
- Smaller body with slender abdomen
- Smaller eyes, usually spaced father apart at sides of head
- Wings can fold shut
- Slightly awkward fliers compared to dragonflies
Dragonflies are not pollinators. They eat some pollinators like flies, bees, and butterflies, but they do not act as pollinators.
Dragonflies are neither dragons nor flies, of course. They are flying insects with the remarkable ability to fly in all directions: forward and backward, side to side, up and down.
While there are thousands of species worldwide, each biogeographical area is host to just some of them, and, within sub-regions, it whittles down from there. This means you may get anywhere from dozens to hundreds of dragonfly families, depending on your location.
Loss of wetland habitat around the globe is a current threat to extinction.
A book published in 1890 called Dragon Flies vs. Mosquitoes: Can the Mosquito Pest Be Mitigated? featured contributions from five experts. Some were optimistic that an increase in dragonfly populations could offer some relief (to humans) with mosquitoes. Today, some 130 years later, we’re still wishing this were true.
Dragonfly Life cycles
The majority of a dragonfly’s life is spent as an aquatic creature. This nymph phase can last several years, depending on the species. This is why having a pond either in your garden or nearby is vital. There are tips for adding a small garden pond here.
As dragonfly nymphs grow, they molt numerous times. Molting means to shed their skin, making room for new growth. You’ve probably seen discarded “shells” of molted dragonflies or other animals like cicadas in the wild but perhaps not known what they are. They look like dry, dead, hollow carcasses, but really it’s just that outer layer they no longer needed.
Adult dragonflies—those fabulous winged beasts we see flying about—may only live days or months depending on the species and location.
During this time it’s all about mating.
Eat. Speed date. Mate.
With males outnumbering females, females can be somewhat selective about mates. This leads to some interesting competitive behaviors. Females of some species may even feign death to avoid attention.
Adult dragonflies cannot withstand cold climate winter.
For most species, it’s the nymphs that survive winter in the north, living below the ice of frozen ponds or other waterways.
A small number of species fly south for the winter. Like monarchs, it’s a multi-generational cycle. The adult dragonfly goes south and mates. Once mature, the new generation returns north.
Warming In The Sun
Ever notice a dragonfly perched on a tall plant stem or resting on a rock with its open wings facing the afternoon sun? This is how these cold-blooded animals warm themselves.
DIY Garden Art
How to Make Dragonfly Garden Art | Repurpose an old ceiling fan into a giant dragonfly.
Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson
Dragonflies and Damselflies: A Natural History by Dennis Paulson
Dragonflies of the North Woods by Kurt Mead
Eco-Beneficial Gardening Books
Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants | Doug Tallamy
Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds, & Other Animals that Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving | Frederique Lavoipierre
The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife (How to Create a Sustainable and Ethical Garden that Promotes Native Wildlife, Plants, and Biodiversity) | Nancy Lawson
The Pollinator Victory Garden | Kim Eierman
A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators: Ontario and Great Lakes Edition | Lorraine Johnson, Sheila Colla | All the information gardeners need to take action to support and protect pollinators, by creating habitat in yards and community spaces, on balconies and boulevards, everywhere!
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~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛