The ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) is a large damselfly of shaded streamsides. Your first impression when you spot its jet-black wings fluttering lazily through sun-dappled vegetation is that a dark butterfly has crossed your path. As it lands on a branch or leaf, the ebony jewelwing’s form takes shape and you can behold it for what it truly is – a magnificent damselfly. There is no doubt why the genus was given the name Calopteryx, which means “beautiful wing.”
This two-inch long damselfly is found in the eastern two-thirds of the United States, usually seen from June to August in our area. It belongs to the family known as broad-winged damselflies, which have broad, colored wings. They normally hold their wings closed over their backs while they perch horizontally, though a quick opening and closing of the wings is sometimes used to signal their location to other jewelwings.
Depending on the light, the male’s gorgeous iridescent body can appear green or blue. His wings are a solid black. The female is no less lovely, with a greenish-bronze body and smoky-brown wings. Tiny white squares (stigmas) are quite apparent on the upper tips of her wings.
A jewelwing that flits out from and then returns to a perch along a small stream is busy feeding. You may not see the flying insects it is capturing and eating, for they can be as small as gnats. But a good feeding perch will be used for hours or days, and a territory of six to ten feet along the stream will be defended from other damselflies.
The flapping of forewings and hindwings simultaneously causes the laid-back fluttering flight of the ebony jewelwing. But when males are courting females, the flight pattern changes; the wings are flapped alternately, and more quickly. This, and a territory along a stretch of stream with plenty of aquatic vegetation, will attract a female to a male.
The female requires plant material just below the water’s surface in which to lay her 600 or so eggs. She dips just the tip of her abdomen underwater and inserts her ovipositor into a plant’s stem or leaf to deposit her eggs. The male remains in the vicinity to guard her, chasing off rival males.
Their nymphal offspring will grow and develop in the aquatic environment of the stream, feeding on insect larvae and other invertebrates below the water’s surface. Early next summer they will leave the water, their exoskeletons will split down the back and beautiful-winged damselflies will emerge to take flight like magical woodland fairies.