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The common darter

David Chapman / 21 October 2020

Common darters, vivid red or ruddy brown dragonflies, can often be seen flying in tandem or circular 'wheel' shapes during the autumn when they mate.

Common darters in tandem.

A pair of dragonflies joined in flight, their movement smooth and coordinated, seemingly acting with one mind. The lead is taken by the male, vivid in his red attire, he holds onto the female unceremoniously using the claspers at the tip of his abdomen to clutch the back of her neck. She is drab by comparison, her yellow colouration has begun to fade to a dull brown, but maybe that is better for when she needs to hide away.

Common darter mating habits

Hiding is the last thing on her mind in autumn. It’s time for egg-laying and these common darters are exhibitionists when it comes to procreation. Their performance is almost balletic. Hovering over a suitable spot the male begins the process of laying an egg by flicking his ‘tail’ and the female downwards, sensing this movement the female does likewise. The combined rotational force is doubled as the tip of her abdomen flicks like the end of a whip.

Her aim is to submerge herself partially or wholly into the water so she can lay her eggs at varying depths. Even at this time of year there is a risk that water levels in the pond might drop and expose her eggs unless they are deep enough.

Common darter dragonfly laying eggs
Caption text in here.

When a pair forms this mating couplet they are said to be ‘in tandem’. But by the time they get into this position the mating has already been done. The process began when the male dragonfly passed sperm from his primary genitalia, situated towards the tail end of his abdomen, to his secondary genitalia, near the top of his abdomen (closest to his thorax and head). At this stage he is ready to grab a female using claspers at the tip of his abdomen to engage around the back of her neck. In this position he encourages her to receive his sperm using the tip of her abdomen. This forms a roughly circular shape known as ‘a wheel’.

Mating is often performed whilst perched on waterside vegetation and this process can last up to fifteen minutes. Once the female has received the sperm she will disengage to allow her to lay eggs but the male continues to hold onto her to make sure she doesn’t fly off and mate with any of his competitors. Now they are in tandem and they might remain this way for up to five minutes before, presumably, they tire or she runs out of fertilised eggs.

By the time we get to October we are close to the end of the dragonfly season but at our garden ponds we might still see a small variety of species primarily hawkers and darters. Hawkers are larger than darters and don’t share the same mating technique, they separate leaving the female to lay eggs on her own. So, at this time of year, if you see a mating pair in tandem they are likely to be common darters, the most numerous darter species in the UK.

Common darter male
Caption text in here.

Common darter facts

The common darter is quite small with a length of 40mm and wingspan of 60mm, it is about half the length and width of an emperor dragonfly.

They are creatures of habit, often returning to the same spot time after time.

When feeling cold common darters like to bask on rocks, close to the ground, as it warms up they bask on vegetation.

They aren’t fussy about their habitat, common darters can be found at ponds, lakes, ditches and rivers.

Common darters have one of the longest flight seasons of any British dragonfly with the larval emergences occurring from June to October. Adult common darters can be seen on the wing well into November if conditions are favourable.

When recently emerged both females and males are yellow. As they mature the males turn red and females gradually turn browner though older females can develop red on top of their abdomen and can even appear blue underneath.

Confusion species include ruddy darter (primarily seen in the south-east) and red-veined darter (a rare migrant and recent breeder in the south).


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.