Antlion: All You Need to Know About These Intriguing Insects

Antlions are fascinating insects with a unique life cycle and hunting strategy. These creatures belong to the Myrmeleon species and are part of the Neuroptera order.

As larvae, antlions are known for constructing funnel-shaped pits to capture ants and other prey.

Antlion larvae, also called doodlebugs, create sandy pits by carefully excavating soil in a circular motion.

The pits serve as effective traps for unsuspecting insects and can be up to two inches in diameter and depth.

When prey, such as ants or other small insects, fall into the pit, the antlion larvae quickly capture them with their sickle-shaped jaws and devour them.

The adult stage of an antlion resembles a damselfly and has a comparatively short lifespan, lasting only about a month.

Interestingly, the two-toothed mandibled larvae of the Glenurus gratus antlion species live in tree holes, while the adults can be found flying in forested areas during summer months.

What are Antlions?

Antlions are small, predatory insects belonging to the family Myrmeleontidae and order Neuroptera. They are commonly found in arthropoda and insecta.

These creatures have two major life stages: larvae and adults. Let’s take a closer look at their characteristics:

They have an elongated body, four intricately veined wings mottled with browns and black, and clubbed or curved antennae about as long as the combined head and thorax2.

Difference between antlion larvae and adults

CharacteristicLarvaeAdults
Body ShapeOval, plump & flattenedElongated
SizeSmallLarger than larvae
Legs66
WingsNone4 veined wings
AntennaeNoneClubbed or curved

Life Cycle of Antlions

  1. Larval stage: Larvae, often called doodlebugs, live just beneath small, conical pits they create in sandy or loose soil1. These pits help them hunt their prey, often ants1 and other small insects.
  1. Adult stage: Adult antlions only live for about a month or a little longer3. They nourish themselves with nectar and pollen3. Most of their lives are spent in larval stages, being voracious predators of ants and other small insects3.

Physical Characteristics and Behavior

Size and Appearance

Adult antlions are drab-colored insects resembling damselflies. They’re about 1.5 inches long with clubbed or curved antennae and intricately veined wings mottled with browns and black 1.

Larval antlions, also called doodlebugs, are oval, plump, and dirt-colored with segmented abdomens 2. Their flattened heads bear large, sickle-like mandibles for predation 4.

AspectLarval Antlion (Doodlebug)Adult Antlion
SizePlump, oval-shaped body1.5-inch long
ColorDirt-coloredBrownish, damselfly-like
Unique FeaturesSickle-shaped mandiblesVeined wings, clubbed antennae
HabitatSandy or loose soilEaves during the day, nocturnal
Feeding HabitsAnts and small insects in trapsPredators, capturing spiders
Life cycle stagePredatory focusShort, reproductive focus

Digging and Trap-Making

Larval antlions create unique, funnel-shaped pits in sandy or loose soil to trap their prey, such as ants and other small insects 3.

They dig a pit by moving backward in a circle, using their abdomen to shift soil up and outward, often found in dry and sandy habitats 5.

Adult antlions, on the other hand, prefer to hide in eaves to capture prey like spiders 6.

Feeding Habits

The larval stage is primarily focused on feeding.

Doodlebugs camouflage at the bottom of their funnels, with only their mandibles protruding 7. Once prey falls into the trap, they swiftly grab it with their jaws and drag it below the soil to consume it.

Adult antlions are mostly nocturnal predators and have a shorter life span of about one month 8.

Are they beneficial or harmful?

Antlions are beneficial predators that help control populations of ants and other small insects.

However, they can become a nuisance if they inhabit areas where humans prefer not to have pits in the soil.

Reproduction and Development

Mating and Laying Eggs

Antlions undergo a life cycle that starts with mating. These insects tend to mate in the spring.

Once the male finds a female, they engage in copulation, after which the female lays her eggs1.

An adult antlion has a slender body resembling a damselfly, further characterized by:

  • Elongated, mottled wings with intricate veins
  • Antennae that are curved or clubbed
  • Colors ranging from shades of brown to black

To lay her eggs safely, the female picks a suitable habitat consisting of sandy or loose soil and overhangs. These eggs are often hidden well, protected from observation and other wildlife2.

Larval Stage and Predatory Behavior

The larval stage is where most people recognize antlions, known as “doodlebugs.” These larvae are:

  • Oval and plump
  • Flattened with segmented abdomens
  • Six-legged with dirt-colored, mottled bodies
  • Equipped with large, sickle-like pincers on their heads4

Antlion larvae are cunning predators that prey on insects like crickets.

They dig funnel-shaped pits using their shovel-like heads to trap prey, which they then inject with venom and digestive enzymes3.

Here’s a comparison of antlion larvae and their prey:

FeatureAntlion LarvaePrey (e.g., Crickets)
SizeSmall and ovalLarger than larvae
MovementSedentary, in pitsAgile, jumping
Hunting methodTrap building, pitN/A
Defense mechanismsVenom, pincersSpeed, jumping

Adult Antlion Lifecycle

The adult antlion life cycle involves metamorphosis from larva to pupa and finally adult, similar to many other insects in the Animalia Arthropoda Insecta group.

As they transform into adults, their color and slender body becomes more evident5. Adult antlions are usually found in areas, such as Mexico and Florida, where sandy or loose soil habitats are abundant6.

Here are some key features of adult antlions:

  • They are more fragile than their larvae stage
  • Adults have a longer and slender frame
  • The adult phase involves flying and mating

The life cycle of antlions is an interesting aspect of entomology and a fine example of the diverse adaptation and behavior observed in the insect world.

Antlion Coexistence with Other Species

Natural Predators and Prey

Antlions are fascinating insects that primarily feed on ants and other small arthropods. Some common prey for antlions include:

  • Ants
  • Small insects
  • Other arthropods

The antlion larvae, also known as doodlebug larvae, create pitfall traps to capture prey by ambush in a unique, clever way.

In terms of predators, antlions face threats from various creatures such as:

  • Birds
  • Lizards
  • Larger insects

Impact on Ecosystem

Antlions play a critical role in the ecosystem by:

  • Controlling ant populations
  • Maintaining balance in insect communities

Despite their hunting methods, it’s important to know that antlions are generally harmless to humans and other large creatures.

However, they might bite humans if threatened. Some reports reveal that their bites may cause radiating pain, although they rarely bite humans.

Comparison table between antlion and lacewing

FeatureAntlionLacewing
Primary PreyAnts and small arthropodsAphids and other small insects
Hunting MethodPitfall traps (for larvae)Ambush or active pursuit
Role in EcosystemControls ant populationsControls aphid populations
Relationship with HumansInspiration for literatureBeneficial for pest control

Conclusion

Antlions look captivating with their unique hunting strategies and fascinating life cycle. The larvae, known as doodlebugs, construct funnel-shaped pits in sandy soil to effectively trap and consume ants and other small insects.

 In their adult stage, antlions resemble delicate damselflies and mainly sustain themselves on nectar. Their important role in controlling insect populations emphasizes their significance in maintaining ecological balance.

Footnotes

  1. Antlion Larvae (Doodlebug Larvae) – Missouri Department of Conservation 2 3 4 5 6 7

  2. Antlion Adults | Missouri Department of Conservation 2 3 4

  3. Antlion Adults Doodlebugs | MDC Teacher Portal 2 3 4 5

  4. Antlion Larvae (Doodlebug Larvae) – Missouri Department of Conservation 2

  5. Antlion Larvae (Doodlebug Larvae) – Missouri Department of Conservation 2

  6. Antlions and Doodlebugs | Horticulture and Home Pest News 2

  7. Antlion Adults Doodlebugs | MDC Teacher Portal

  8. Antlions and Doodlebugs | Horticulture and Home Pest News

Readers’ Mail

Over the years, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – DOODLE BUGS

WHAT IS THE SCIENTIFIC NAME FOR THE DOODLE BUG?

The doodlebug is the larval form of the Antlion. The doodlebug digs a pit in the sand and waits for ants and other insects to fall into its waiting jaws.

The adults are winged. The scientific name of the Family is Myrmeleontidae. There are over 89 North American species, and a common one is Dendroleon obsoletum.

Letter 2 – Doodlebug

What might this be?
Location: North East Pennsylvania
January 10, 2011 7:24 pm
Came home today and our cats where playing with it. It you would think where the pinchers are at was the head…. but it walks in the opposite direction.
Signature: ~M

Doodlebug

Dear M,
This is a Doodlebug, the larva of an Antlion.  The reason it walks backwards is because the Doodlebug spends its larval life buried in sandy soil.  It waits at the bottom of a conical pit with only its mandibles exposed.

  Any insect that falls into the pit is quickly devoured.  The big mystery for us is where your cats found this Doodlebug in the middle of the winter.  Do you perhaps have a dirt floor in the basement?

Letter 3 – Doodlebug

whats this bug?
Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 4:17 PM
It lives in what looks like a place where water from an eve has fallen in the sand and made a little crater. when a bug falls in the crater it eats it. it looks like it has a long neck with pincher’s.
jeremiah trzil
michagan

Doodlebug

Doodlebug

Hi Jeremiah,
We always love posting images of Doodlebugs, the predatory larvae of Antlions.  Doodlebugs dig a crater in loose sand and wait patiently buried in the bottom with only their impressive mandibles visible. 

When a hapless ant or other insect approaches the edge of the pit, the sand crumbles away and the insect finds itself skewered on the Doodlebugs jaws.

Letter 4 – Doodlebug

Can’t find it anywhere . . .
Hi,
I checked your archives and couldn’t find this bug. I don’t think it’s an adult. Perhaps it’s a larva of something easily recognizable when it’s full grow? The bug lives in my shed, in a light layer of dirt atop the concrete floor.

I first noticed it building a cone/trap. It would burrow in a circle, just under the surface and flip out the dirt with it’s head. It would continue to go round and round until it had excavated its trap and then bury itself at the bottom of the cone, sometimes with its head exposed, other times not.

The pictures were taken last June 2008 in Elkton, OR (SW Oregon, Douglas Cty). This first picture shows its trap – a shallow cone-shaped depression in the dirt. You can notice a pale, round object at the bottom of the cone. That’s the critter’s head.

Closer inspection of the head: Next time I looked, there were 3 cone-shaped depressions (there’s now 8), and in the bottom of one cone, I noticed this drama (don ‘t know what the prey is, either): Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me, and with a blade of grass, I dug out one of the cone builders: I put him back in his cone when I was done with him. Any idea what it and its prey are? Thanks,
John
PS – Great site and great service you provide. I take pictures of bugs every day, and you can be sure I’ll be back.

Hi John,
What a great photo of a Doodlebug, the larva of an Antlion. We would need additional time to identify the prey, but the upsidedown angle might make it difficult.

Update:  September 1, 2014
Interestingly, we always refer to adult Antlions as just Antlions, and we refer to the larvae as Doodlebugs.  The name Antlion is derived from the sophisticated hunting methods of the larvae, which dig a pit, waiting in the bottom with only the grasping, toothed mandibles showing. 

The angle of the slope of the pit which is dug in sandy soil is so steep that any ants or other insects that get close will slide into the waiting jaws of the Antlion.

Letter 5 – Antlion from Australia

Subject: Dragonfly/Moth
Location: Paynesville, Victoria, Australia.
January 29, 2013 4:30 am
A friend and i found this interesting bug and are unsure what it is… Please help!
Signature: Cheers, JJ Petho

Antlion

Dear JJ,
This is an Antlion in the family Myrmeleontidae.  Though it doesn’t appear to match the individuals pictured on the Brisbane Insect Website, that is a nice place to learn more about these fascinating creatures.  The larvae are called Doodlebugs in North America.

Antlion

Thanks for taking the time to get back to me, will most defiantly look into it more. Thanks again.
– JJ

Letter 6 – Doodle Bug

“Dirt hole” bug
I found this bug in a dirt “hole” that the bug apparently created himself. I noticed him in the bottom of it because of a small termite that was trapped by the soft-dirt sides, and could not crawl out of the hole.

The bug was completely covered in the bottom of the hole, and only its pinchers would come out to try and grab the termite when it slid back down to the bottom. Just wondering what kind of bug it is.
I live in north Alabama, if that helps.
Thanks,
Trevor

Hi Trevor,
What a great photo of a Doodle Bug, the immature Ant Lion. As you observed, the larvae live at the bottom of a pit with only their formidable jaws exposed. There they wait patiently for ants or other insects to slip into their waiting mouths.

Letter 7 – Doodlebug

Help Identify This Bug For Us
Hello,
Please help. We have about 20 of these bugs digging in the dirt right outside our front door. They are digging these funnel shaped holes in the dirt. I have enclosed a picture.

Please let me know if these bugs are dangerous to plants etc. Also, please note these bugs play dead when you capture them. If they are harmless that would be fine. We just want to make sure they are not a nuisance.
Thank you again,
Mark and Erika Blume

Hi Mark and Erika,
Nice photo of a Doodlebug, the immature Ant Lion. They are actually helpful if you have ant problems. The larva dig pits and wait at the bottom for ants to stumble into their waiting jaws.

Letter 8 – Doodlebug


I know this is probably a common bug that everyone on this planet apart from my partner and myself have seen but curious got the better of us and we can’t find it in the encyclopaedia (mainly because we don’t know where to start looking).

At first we thought maybe Ant lion, then cockroach, then alien larva from mars, then back to mutant crossbreeding of cockroach/ant lion. So I guess any help would be good
Thanks
Jason C

Hi Jason,
Thank you for sending in the photo of a Doodlebug. We have gotten several letters, but have not received a photo until yours. This is the larva of the Antlion, Family Myrmeleontidae.

Letter 9 – Doodlebug

Burrowing Bug…
My name is Bill and I live in Ringwood New Jersey which is the northern section of the state, my Daughter and I have noticed these cone shaped pits around the house. The top of the pits are about 1 1⁄2 inches and funnels down to a point.

Whenever an ant or any other bug gets caught in these pits they slide to the bottom and then they get ambushed by this bug and then dragged underground. This all happens in a split second. This picture was taken under a 15 power microscope.

The largest one is about the size of your pinky nail. Thank you and keep up the great work, your site is one of the best…
William Karlak

Hi William,
This is a Doodlebug, the larva of an Antlion. Your description is right on.

Letter 10 – Doodlebug

Strange bug
Location: Coronado National Memorial, Hereford, AZ
March 23, 2011 9:54 am
Hello,
I spotted this bug yesterday while eating lunch. I am more of a plant guy so I am clueless.
Oak Woodland/desert grassland habitat. Decomposed granite soils.
Signature: Dean

Doodlebug

Hi Dean,
This is sure a marvelous photograph of an Antlion Larva, commonly called a Doodlebug.  They remain buried in the sand at the bottom of a pit with only the mandibles exposed.  They prey upon any hapless insects that fall down the pit and into the waiting jaws.

Letter 11 – Doodlebug

Subject:  Doodlebugs in Western WA?
Geographic location of the bug:  Puyallup/Tacoma
Date: 06/26/2019
Time: 11:18 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  We recently bought a new home and have found these numerous tiny divots all over the bark in the yard. I did some digging and found the culprit to be, what looks like, doodlebugs.

Yet, I read that they seem to live in warmer, sandier climates. Should I be surprised to have found these little guys here? Thanks!
How you want your letter signed:  Shannon BH

Doodlebug

Dear Shannon,
This is indeed a larval Antlion or Doodlebug.  Though they are frequently found in sandy soil, that is a generalization.  According to BugGuide data, Antlions are found in all 48 continental United States.

Letter 12 – Doodlebug, AKA Ant Lion Larva

Subject:  Never seen this bug before
Geographic location of the bug:  Knoxville, TN
Date: 06/12/2019
Time: 11:21 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I thought this bug looked cool and was trying to identify it! Found it on the bed in my house.
How you want your letter signed:  Jessie

Doodlebug

Dear Jessie,
This is an Antlion larva, commonly called a Doodlebug.  They are generally found at the bottom of a pit in sandy soil where they lie buried with only their impressive mandibles exposed, waiting for unsuspecting prey, often Ants, to fall into the pit right into the hungry Doodlebug’s waiting jaws. 

Interestingly, we just posted an image of an unknown larva that the querent mistook for an Antlion larva.

Letter 13 – Doodlebug found in Home

Subject:  BUG
Geographic location of the bug:  Berkeley Heights, New Jersey
Date: 02/07/2018
Time: 11:02 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I found this Bug in my towel in the bathroom
It looks scary, and I have a 2 year old and a 4 year old..  should I be concered
Thank you very much
How you want your letter signed:  thank you

Doodlebug

This looks to us like the larva of an Antlion, commonly called a Doodlebug.  It poses no threat to your children, but it is a predator and it is possible a mild pinch might occur because of the prominent mandibles if one of your children tries to catch and hold the Doodlebug.

  The big mystery for us is “why was it in your home in a towel in the middle of the winter?”  Most Doodlebugs dig in sandy soil, waiting at the bottom of a pit for ants and other unwary insects to tumble into their open jaws.

Doodlebug

Letter 14 – Doodlebug from Australia

Form Test
Location:  Queensland. Australia
August 3, 2010 5:10 pm
Hi Daniel,
Hope this gets there okay. A wandering doodle bug (antlion). Poor ants, those jaws must be a nasty surprise when they fall in a pit trap.
aussietrev

Doodlebug

Hi Trevor,
Thanks for helping us to improve our submission form.  Your Doodlebug photo is awesome.

Letter 15 – Doodlebug from The Bahamas

Subject: Underground bug
Location: Long island bahamas
September 3, 2016 12:28 pm
This bug was crawling under not on top of soil. What is this?
Signature: Doesn’t matter

Doodlebug

Doodlebug

This is an immature Antlion, commonly called a Doodlebug.  The Doodlebug waits buried at the bottom of a pit with only its mandibles visible for insects to fall into its hungry mouth.

Letter 16 – Doodlebugs

pic of bug
THis is the bug that I dug up from the dirt volcano reversed I wrote you about 2 days ago. It isn’t the best of pictures, but it looks like a weevile or beetle of some sort. Instead of antena’s it has pinchers.

When you shake them around they play dead, but with their pinchers open ready to bite. They are the size of a raisen. Any info would be helpful. Are they bad for my house?

You have Doodlebugs, the immature larva of the Ant Lion. The Doodlebug waits at the bottom of its burrow for ants to tumble in and then eats them. They will not harm you nor your home.

Thank you so much. I love your web site. What a great idea!!! I just found it a few days ago and I have been looking at it for days, and all the ugly bugs that people find. You’ve been very helpful and so quickly too.

Yesterday I did set the doodlebugs free and alive. I had hoped they were harmless. If not they would have met with Mr. Raid very quickly.
Cheers,
Brandi

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

18 thoughts on “Antlion: All You Need to Know About These Intriguing Insects”

  1. When I was a little girl around 5 years old, my neighbor friend James and I used to crawl under my house in Texas and catch doodlebugs with our bare hands, then let them go again. We would each sit in the dirt, where there numerous pits, and watch as the doodlebugs would dig into the loose dirt in front of us, creating these funnel-shaped pits. I remember remarking how it looked like the bugs were walking backwards. James (who was a year older than me), showed me how to wait until the doodlebug’s body had just disappeared from view, then quickly plunge my hand down beside and then under its pit in a swooping motion, letting the dry, sandy soil slip away between my fingers, leaving the doodlebug sitting on my palm. We passed the time away for hours doing this.

    Reply
    • This is an eleven year old posting, but we still stand by what we wrote. Common names can be misleading because some names are very localized in use and sometimes the same common name is used for numerous species. We could find no reference to Sand Lion online. Please provide us with a citation. Doodlebug, on the other hand, is a universally accepted common name for the larva of an Antlion in the family Myrmeleontidae. Its use is acknowledged on BugGuide, Merriam-Webster and even that bastion of pop culture references, Wikipedia. We are not mistaken.

      Reply
  2. We always called the adult form ant lions too. Dad told us that they were doodle bugs because you could get close to their pits and say “doodle” over and over and the vibrations would cause the creature to rise up out of the center of its pit expecting expecting a meal. I caught one and kept it as a pet in a dry area outside until it finally became an adult and flew away. I thought they were ant lions because they seemed ferocious in dealing with the ants which happened into their pits.

    Reply
  3. I just came across a doodle bug pit here by our campsite. It recalled memories of my dad down on his hands and knees over a doodle bug hole doodling away and lo, and behold! Up came a doodle bug. I thought it was magic (well, have to admit to a little skepticism also). I asked him about it once when I was much older and he just grinned. Now I see it really was real! Miss him.

    Reply
  4. When I was a little girl, we lived in Louisiana. We called roly poly bugs doodle bugs be it when we moved to Oklahoma, the kids called them roly polys. Is it common to have different names for the same insect in different parts of the country?

    Reply
    • The reason the scientific community uses a binomial naming system with a genus and a species name is so that a unique name applies to each living organism. Problems frequently occur with common names.

      Reply
  5. Does anyone remember the words that you would repeat when you were digging/stirring for doodlebugs.
    I would say Doodle Dandy, Doodle Dandy which way is your house – or something like that. Can’t remember exactly. Looking for the words that we used. 🙂

    Reply
    • According to NCPedia: “Doodlebugs have also played a role in North Carolina folk history. They are often “called up” by children, who use a straw or pine needle to stir the pit in imitation of an ant struggling to escape. Children traditionally sing a ditty such as “Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire,” or, “Doodlebug, doodlebug, come get your bread and butter,” while attempting to catch the insect. When the doodlebug reveals itself it may be lifted out of its hiding place and held in the palm of the hand. Since it moves backward better than forward, it often backs off the hand quickly and falls to the ground.”

      Reply
  6. Does anyone remember the words that you would repeat when you were digging/stirring for doodlebugs.
    I would say Doodle Dandy, Doodle Dandy which way is your house – or something like that. Can’t remember exactly. Looking for the words that we used. 🙂

    Reply

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