Susie Schwoch has found her prince. Her husband shouldn’t mind, since her prince measures just over an inch long and eats insects. That doesn’t sound like anyone’s dream man. And this prince could easily elude any jealous husband. Not only can it fly, but in its larval stage it can also totally submerge itself in ponds, allowing it to both hide and escape in times of peril.

Last week, Susie found and photographed a violet dancer damselfly. While it may not be a true imperial, its purple color reeks of royalty. The beauty of these flying fancies could change the mind of even the most strident entomophobe. 

Damselflies are members of the order Odonata, which also includes the more familiar dragonflies. It is easy to differentiate the two.  Dragonflies are generally larger, fly straighter and at rest hold their wings out horizontally from their bodies. The more delicate damselflies hold their wings together against or slightly above their bodies when they are not in the air, and appear more erratic in flight. The eggs of the two are also different, with the dragonfly laying rounder and shorter eggs than the damselflies.

The violet dancer, also called the variable dancer, is a common damselfly in our area. It prefers to live near flowing water; both streams and ponds are great habitats. Look for it in the open, catching flying insects on the wing rather than plucking its prey from pond side vegetation. This frequent flyer will land on the ground, logs and rocks when it needs to take a break from its bouncy, irregular flight.

Also look for the variable dancers pairing up, creating a ‘wheel’ or ‘heart’ shape when the male and female come together to mate. Though their adult lifespan is short, recent research shows its time on earth can be full of passion. 

British scientist Dr. Christopher Hassall is a Marie Curie Fellow in the University of Leeds’ School of Biology, whose research shows that age doesn’t dull damselfly sex. He explained in an article last year in the Journal of Animal Ecology, “For the damselflies, it doesn’t matter how much sex they have had in the past, they can still keep on going until they die and they don’t appear to pay a price for it. It was Aristotle who first proposed that too much sex might shorten your lifespan . . . but that doesn’t seem to bother the damselflies!”

The violet dancer is one of three subspecies in the genus. The others include the black dancer and smoky-winged dancer, which all closely resemble each other.

Violet describes only the male of the species, thus Susie’s prince rather than her princess. The females of the species are usually a dull brown, red or black, lacking the brilliant purple color of the body, eyes and face of the male. When you see the bold purple with blue on the end of the abdomen, you too will fall in love.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.