Dragonfly Vs Firefly: All Differences Explained

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Differences Between A Dragonfly And A Firefly

Firstly, these two creatures are both insects, so biologically have much in common – but there are some key morphological differences between them: which means they look very different. The firefly is like a beetle in appearance – but the dragonfly is from a completely different insect family and so looks more like a cross between a butterfly and a fairy!

The 5 Ways To Tell Dragonflies And Fireflies Apart

1: Wings – Dragonfly wings are always visible – fireflies hide them away

2: Glow In The Dark – Fireflies can be seen flashing at night – dragonflies can’t do this

3: Females Grounded – Many female fireflies can’t fly – but you rarely see dragonflies on the ground

4: Day & Night Shift – Fireflies are only active at night, but dragonflies are best during the day

5: Overall Size – Fireflies are tiny in size compared to adult dragonflies

These physical and behavioral clues to each species can help narrow down what you are looking for. Position, action, and time of day are all key factors in telling these two insects apart – and luckily – even in just pictures, it is easy to pick out most of these traits listed in detail below:

1: Dragonflies Hold Their Wings Out Proudly – Fireflies Tuck Them Away

Dragonflies have magnificent wings that they hold out sideways from their body – totally horizontally – like a helicopter. They have four delicately veined, clear wings that hold them aloft on the spot. They can change direction and speed in a heartbeat to catch their flying insect prey because each of the four wings can be moved independently of the others. Their wings can be over 10cm (4in) wide when held still and are extremely rigid: they can’t bend.

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Fireflies, on the other hand, are more like beetles in their adult form and fold up their wings to tuck them neatly under little covers, which we see as ‘their back’. The red-spotted body of a ladybug, for example, is her wing case – her ‘elytra’. Fireflies aren’t so pretty, though – as they aren’t seen through the day – and their elytra are usually plain green, brown or black. Not all fireflies look like beetles, though – many females stay looking like pill bugs or small grubs.  


2: Fireflies Can Light Up Their Bodies At Night – Dragonflies Never Evolved This

Fireflies are one of the very few animals in the world that can use bioluminescence. That is, they can make part of their body flash brightly. Fireflies can create different colors when they glow up (hence their regional name of glow-worm) – including reds, yellows, and greens. Some fireflies look like they are glowing blue from a distance too – but it is just a trick of the light. All firefly larvae glow on and off as a deterrent to predators to say that they taste horrible, and all adults can glow too, but it is strongest in the females. Adults do it to attract a mate – using a series of different flashes unique to each species to communicate with each other.

Dragonflies don’t need to be seen at night – and it helps protect them if they aren’t. Brightly colored and iridescent in color – they do all there showing off while the sun shines. Not glowing for a dragonfly makes them partly invisible when they are resting. Dragonflies are sometimes attracted to strong artificial lights at night due to the confusion this causes. They aren’t usually seen actively hunting at night, but they gather around certain places with other insects.

3: Female Fireflies Have Lost The Power Of Flight – Dragonfly Females Fly High

In many species of firefly, the females are different from the males – sometimes very different. Fireflies, like most insects, go through 4 life stages, namely egg – larva – pupa – adult – and they all look very different. However, female fireflies have played with nature a bit – and to their advantage. Sometimes they become adults but stay looking like a larva – thought to save energy instead of pupating (molt) into an adult.

After emerging from the water as fully grown nymphs, they hatch out as adult females and start feeding in preparation for breeding. Female dragonflies deposit up to 1500 eggs into the water in a lifetime, so they need to feed up well in advance. Firefly females only lay around 500 eggs as a season – and all in the soil. On the other hand, dragonfly females pupate into adults in all species. 

4: Dragonflies Hunt By Day But Fireflies Are Only Active At Night 

If you see a large flying insect out during the day – it will be a dragonfly. This diurnal (day flying) insect family can hunt best during sunlight hours. They have huge compound eyes to hunt with, and their iridescent exoskeleton reflects that same sunlight – helping them communicate with each other. Their prey is only awake during the day, too – so another reason to be around at the same time. 

Fireflies, on the other hand, need to be awake at night; otherwise, they won’t see each other flashing. They spend all night communicating with their flashes as larvae and during the breeding season, so it is essential to all be out simultaneously. Some fireflies eat slugs, worms, and other ground-dwelling critters; others eat pollen; some don’t eat at all – they have no mouths. 

5: Dragonflies Are Huge Compared To Fireflies

Fireflies are teeny – some only a few centimeters long. They stay small even as adults as they don’t need to be any bigger. Living in the soil, they just move around eating other animals living in the same soil – or in some cases – not eating at all and just waiting for a mate. They have evolved to stay hidden in life – only coming out to flash for a few weeks a year.

The giants of the Jurassic. Dragonflies are giant in comparison. They can easily top 10cm (4in) in size – although their ancestors could reach 70cm (30in). You can see a dragonfly if it comes past you – there is no missing them. However, you would be hard pushed to see a firefly without getting real close up.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Dragonflies And Fireflies Related?

A very long time ago. Dragonflies are in the biological order Odonata and damselflies and mayflies, whereas fireflies are in the order Coleoptera and all the beetles. They are very far apart in terms of species and formed separately back in the time of the dinosaurs. They are so far apart in terms of biology – including the fact that dragonfly offspring need to live in water to survive – that they couldn’t possibly interbreed.

Why Don’t Some Fireflies Have Mouths?

Some insects do not need food in their adult life stage – usually because they don’t need to live long enough to eat. Some larval stages generate so much energy that they carry over most of that power into the adult form – enough for it to pupate, find a mate, and breed. That is all it needs to do. Several adult life forms fireflies molt into an adult without feeding parts. This is normal – as many of them only live a few weeks anyway, which is plenty of time to complete their life cycle.

Can Fireflies Start Fires?

No. Fireflies got their name because of the flashes of bright light they produce, which -when orange and yellow can look like fire for a split second. Similarly, they are also called lightning bugs (but don’t get hit by lightning) and glow worms (even though they aren’t worms).

Are Fireflies Flies?

No, they aren’t. Fireflies are actually in the beetle family and have moveable protective wing coverings just like other flying beetles. They follow the same lifecycle as most other beetles, too, apart from the female habit in many species of not taking on the adult ‘beetle’ form for their final molt. They stay looking like flightless larvae. 

Are Dragonflies Dinosaurs?

Answer: No. However, their ancestors were alive and flying during the time of the dinosaurs – and at quite massive sizes. Many prehistoric dragonflies had wingspans over 70cm (28in) and were formidable predators. Not quite the size of T. Rex, though.

Do Fireflies Live All Over The World?

Answer: Yes. There are around 2,000 species of fireflies, and they inhabit every corner of the globe where the habitat is right. They all live slightly different lifestyles; all have different colors; all use varying flashing patterns; and have evolved a whole suite of unusual female behaviors – but they are all fireflies.

Can Dragonflies Swim?

Answer: As nymphs, yes. The larval stages of the dragonfly lifecycle are always lived underwater. These aquatic lifeforms grow and molt through several sizes from the egg to the near-adult – before leaving the water. Sometimes this growth process can take as little as a few months, and others remain in the water for several years before maturing.