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State Insect of Nevada Lesson: The Vivid Dancer Damselfly

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Nevada's state insect is the vivid dancer damselfly. It was designated in 2009 after fourth-grade students from the John R. Beatty Elementary school in Las Vegas won a contest to select the state's official insect. They thought it would be good choice in part because the insect is blue and silver in color, which happen to be Nevada's official state colors.

The vivid dancer is one of hundreds of damselfly species that are distributed across the United States, and around the world. This article tells you what you need to know about this amazing insect.

The Vivid Dancer's Scientific Name

Nevada's state insect is a kind of damselfly, which is an insect closely related to the more familiar dragonfly. These insects are all in the order Odonata, a large group of insects that includes all of the world's dragonflies and damselflies. Within that group, the vivid dancer belongs to the family Coenagrionidae. Its full scientific name is Argia vivida. This means it belongs to the genus Argia, and its species name is vivida. This is a little like having your last name first and you first name last.

As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!

The state insect of Nevada, the vivid dancer damselfly

The state insect of Nevada, the vivid dancer damselfly

Get to Know the Vivid Dancer Damselfly

Damselflies are essentially a smaller, more fragile kind of dragonfly. Like dragonflies, most damselflies are active and agile hunters. The male typically chooses a favorite perch and returns to it after patrolling its territory in fast, swooping flights. These perches are usually a stick or branch that juts out over a pond; scientists who study this insect have found that they prefer a perch that is in the sun, but they face a part of the sky away from the sun. One reason for this behavior may be that it's easier for them to see flying insects with this arrangement.

Like dragonflies, damselflies catch and eat mosquitoes and other flying insects. They chase them down and scoop them up with basket-like legs covered in spines. Then they much on their prey with powerful jaws, often while still flying.

Dragonfly or Damselfly?

For most people, the difference between dragonflies and damselflies is inconsequential. For those people who study insects, called "entomologists" the difference is obvious and meaningful. You and I can quickly tell the difference between the two by looking at the insect when it lands: if it holds its wings out straight like an airplane, it's a dragonfly. If it holds its wings folded over its back like a butterfly, it's a damselfly.

The vivid dancer, like all damselflies, holds its wings over its body like a butterfly

The vivid dancer, like all damselflies, holds its wings over its body like a butterfly

Mating and Egg-Laying Behaviors

One of the most interesting things about Nevada's state insect, and members of the family Odonata in general, is the fact that they often mate in mid-air. The male and female clasp in such a way that they can keep flying, and presumably stay agile enough to avoid predators. Occasionally they will lad to rest, but throughout the entire process they stay linked together in a kind of loop.

Similarly, the female lays her eggs by flying just above the water, dipping the tip of her abdomen into the water to lay eggs. If you have watched damselflies or dragonflies in flight around a pond, you have likely witnessed this behavior.

Life Cycle and Larvae

Adult damselflies are delicate insects with spectacular agility, but the larval stage is a different story altogether. Known as "nymphs," damselfly larvae are something like the horror-movie version of a caterpillar. They are generally aquatic, meaning they spend most of their time underwater. They are fearsome hunters, equipped with sharp pincers that they use to grab their prey. Depending on their size, damselfly nymphs eat everything from other insects to tadpoles, minnows, and even small frogs.

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It's truly hard to imagine that these spiny, fierce creepy-crawlers grow up to be such graceful adults, but they do. This is one of the most remarkable things about damselflies and dragonflies -- the amazing contrast between the larvae and the adults.

This dragonfly nymph is very similar to the nymph of a damselfly

This dragonfly nymph is very similar to the nymph of a damselfly

Complete Versus Incomplete Metamorphosis

"Complete metamorphosis" is the term used to describe the life cycle of insects that go through a four-stage sequence of forms. For butterflies, this means egg-larva-cocoon/chrysalis-adult. It helps to take the butterfly as the example, although dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and many other insects also go through complete metamorphosis. Like butterflies, they all have larvae and all of the other developmental stages.

Vivid dancers, and all damselflies, are typical of the insects that undergo incomplete metamorphosis, which means they skip the pupa stage. The egg is laid on the surface of water, often a pond or stream. The larva hatches out and begins to feed on underwater insects and small animals. When it's full-grown, it crawls out onto dry land, where the adult hatches out from the larval shell and flies away.

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Damselfly Facts

These cool damselfly facts are courtesy of ecospark:

  • Damselfly nymphs capture prey by using a modified lower lip (called a labium) that shoots out and seizes their prey.
  • Adults catch smaller insects in mid-air and devour their prey as they fly.
  • Damselfly nymphs live in freshwater habitats likestreams, ponds, lakes, and rivers.
  • As adults, damselflies are likely to be spotted near the water.
  • Dragonflies hold their wings horizontally at rest, while most damselflies hold their wings together above the body.
  • The long tail-like structures at the end of the damselfly's abdomen are gills that are used to obtain oxygen from the water.
  • The female lays the eggs on aquatic plants.
  • Nymphs go through approximately 10 to 12 immature stages (called instars) during development.
  • When nymphs are ready to become adults, they crawl out of the water and shed their exoskeleton one last time. Underneath the shell is the newly developed adult.
  • Adult damselflies can be found throughout the warm months
  • In order to mate, a male damselfly will grab a female in mid-air. Mating pairs can often be seen flying while attached to each other.
  • Adults typically live for several weeks.
One of the vivid dancer's beautiful damselfly relatives

One of the vivid dancer's beautiful damselfly relatives

The next time you are out west and around a pond, lake or stream, keep your eyes open for the graceful blue and silver damselfly that is Nevada's state insect!

Insect Pests Versus Harmless Species: A Reminder

Many people just think of insects as pests, whether they are or not. For those of us who truly admire and respect insects (and nature), this does not make sense -- pest insects, like cockroaches, brown recluse spiders, and some species of ants -- are insects and spiders that inhabit our homes or gardens and do damage. The state insects in this guide are not pests! They are generally harmless animals with whom we share the planet.

Even when an insect is considered a pest, we still need to respect their presence and remember that they were here first, often by tens of millions of years. Of course it's fine to attempt to exterminate roaches from your basement, but please remember that not all insects are pests!

Check Out My Other State Insect Articles on Owlcation!


The following sources were used for this article:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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