Antlions: Nature’s Sand Trap Architects

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.

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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

Authors

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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18 thoughts on “Antlions: Nature’s Sand Trap Architects”

  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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