Antlion Life Cycle: Fascinating Stages of Nature’s Master Trapper

Antlions are fascinating insects that go through a unique life cycle. These creatures begin as larvae, known as “doodlebugs,” before transforming into delicate, fragile-looking adults.

The life cycle of an antlion consists of distinct stages, each with its own characteristics and behaviors. Let’s explore the life cycle of antlions in this article.

An Overview of Antlion’s Life Cycle

In the larval stage, antlions are known for their distinctive funnel-shaped pits, which they create in sandy soil to capture prey, mainly ants.

These small larvae wait at the base of the pit and use their caliper-like jaws to snag their victims, dragging them underneath to consume their juices.

After some time, a fully-grown larva forms a cocoon in the ground, initiating the metamorphosis into the adult stage.

Adult antlions resemble damselflies, measuring up to 2 inches in length, and are active primarily at night.

These nocturnal insects can be found flying in forested areas during the summer months, with some species being attracted to lights.

Despite their delicate appearance, adult antlions are skilled predators, and their brief adult life span lasts approximately one month before they lay eggs and continue the life cycle.

Antlion Life Cycle

Eggs

The life cycle of an antlion begins with the female laying eggs singly in sandy soil1. These eggs are carefully placed at the base of their pits, providing a suitable environment for them to hatch.

Larvae

Once hatched, the larvae are small, oval, and plump with segmented abdomens and 6 legs2. These larvae are known for creating funnel-shaped pits in the soil to trap ants. Key characteristics include:

  • Mottled, dirt-colored appearance
  • Flattened head with pincer-like jaws
  • Can have bristles on the body

The larval stage is when antlions are most voracious, feeding on trapped ants that fall into their pits1. As the larvae grow, molting occurs occasionally to accommodate their increasing size.

Pupal Stage

When fully grown, the antlion larva forms a cocoon in the ground, transitioning into the pupal stage3.

During this stage, it stays underground, taking time to transform before emerging as an adult antlion.

Adult Antlions

Adult antlions are delicate insects that can grow up to 2 inches long3. They are usually drab-colored and resemble damselflies, with a few key differences:

  • Active primarily at night
  • Life span of approximately one month3
  • Mostly found in forested areas4

Antlion Habitats and Behavior

Pit Traps

Antlions are known for their unique pit traps. The larvae create conical pits in sandy soil to capture prey, mainly ants.

The pits are designed to collapse under the weight of an arthropod, causing them to fall towards the center where the antlion awaits.

Examples of these habitats include sandy playgrounds, dry riverbeds, and sandy areas near buildings.

Feeding Strategies

The larvae of antlions, otherwise known as doodlebugs, are opportunistic predators.

The way they capture prey involves their powerful, sickle-like jaws. When an unsuspecting prey falls into the pit trap, the antlion grabs them and pulls them beneath the soil to consume their juices.

Lifecycle

The antlion lifecycle typically includes an egg, larva, pupa, and adult stage, characterized within the family Myrmeleontidae. Here’s a brief overview of this cycle:

  • Female antlions lay single eggs in sandy soil
  • Eggs hatch into small larvae (doodlebugs)
  • Larvae dig pits, feed on arthropods, and molt as they grow
  • When ready, they form a cocoon and metamorphose into an adult

Distribution

Antlions are widespread arthropods and can be found in various habitats.

They primarily reside in regions with sandy soil, which is essential for pit construction.

Here’s a comparison table showing the distribution of antlions in different areas:

HabitatPresence of Antlions
Dry riverbedsCommon
Sandy forestsRare
Desert areasCommon
Coastal dunesFrequent

Physical Traits of Antlions

Appearance and Size of Larval Antlion

Antlion larvae, known as doodlebugs, have an oval and plump shape. Their bodies are flattened and soft, with segmented abdomens and six legs.

These larvae are dirt-colored and often have bristles. The head of an antlion larva is also flattened and contains a pair of large, sickle-like pincers that may have spines.

Regarding their size, larval antlions in the genus Myrmeleon are typically small, living just beneath conical pits in sandy or loose soil.

Adult Antlion Characteristics

Adult antlions belong to the order Neuroptera. They are larger than their larval form and superficially resemble drab-colored damselflies with elongated bodies. Their scientific name is Myrmeleon sp.

These insects have an intricate veined wing pattern that is mottled with browns and black. Antennae on adult antlions are clubbed or curved and about as long as the combined head and thorax.

Most adult antlions consume nectar and pollen, while some also prey on small insects and spiders.

Key features of antlions:

  • Belong to order Neuroptera
  • Genus Myrmeleon
  • Occur across North America
  • Both larval and adult forms are predators

Comparison of larval and adult antlions:

CharacteristicsLarval AntlionAdult Antlion
HabitatSandy or loose soilVarious habitats
SizeSmallLarger than larvae
Body typePlump, flattened, segmentedElongated, slender
HeadFlattened, sickle-like pincersNormal
DietPrey on ants and other small insectsNectar, pollen, small insects, and spiders
WingsAbsentFour veined wings
AntennaeAbsentClubbed or curved, as long as the head and thorax

With different habitats and diets, antlions play an important role in controlling ant populations and other small insects during their life cycle.

Antlion Interactions with Other Species

Prey and Predators

Larval antlions are known for their unique method of capturing prey. They create sandy pits in which they lie in wait for unsuspecting insects, primarily ants.

The larva has sickle-shaped mandibles that it uses to easily catch and devour its prey. Some predators of antlions include invertebrates like spiders and some species of birds.

Antlion Effect on the Ecosystem

As predators, antlions play an essential role in controlling the population of ants and other small insects.

Mature adult antlions have an elongated body and inhabit spaces such as eaves and foliage, where they feed on insects attracted to lights.

The antlion life cycle involves several stages:

  • Eggs: Antlions lay their oval eggs in sandy or loose soil.
  • Larval stage: Larvae possess segmented abdomens and create their characteristic sandy pits to capture prey.
  • Pupal stage: In this stage, antlions create a silk cocoon where they undergo metamorphosis.
  • Adult stage: Adult antlions have an elongated body and wings, feeding on insects while inhabiting eaves and foliage.

Some features of larval antlions include:

  • Mottled and dirt-colored
  • Bristles present
  • Sickle-shaped mandibles
  • Segmented abdomens

Some characteristics of adult antlions include:

  • Elongated body
  • 1½ inch wingspan
  • Antenna length about as long as head-width
  • Drab-colored and superficially resembling damselflies

Conclusion

Antlions play a vital role in their ecosystem, feeding on other insects and controlling insect populations. Their unique life cycle and hunting techniques make them an intriguing subject for further study.

Antlions lead a captivating life cycle, beginning as larvae with their distinct funnel-shaped pits designed to ensnare ants before metamorphosing into delicate, damselfly-like adults.

These nocturnal insects actively thrive in various habitats, from sandy riverbeds to coastal dunes. As voracious predators, they help maintain ecological balance by controlling insect populations.

Footnotes

  1. Antlion Adults Doodlebugs | MDC Teacher Portal 2

  2. Antlion Larvae (Doodlebug Larvae) | MDC Teacher Portal

  3. Antlions and Doodlebugs | Horticulture and Home Pest News 2 3

  4. an antlion – Glenurus gratus (Say) – Entomology and Nematology Department

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 – Doodlebugs: Immature Antlions dig numerous pits

Orlando/Central Florida
November 18, 2010 4:27 pm
My backyard is all sand with a single tree in the center. Underneath the tree there are tons of little divots and I can never catch a glimpse of the bug.

If I’m quiet for awhile, I’ll eventually see a little leg start kicking more sand out but the bug never emerges. Any ideas of what sort of bugs do this?
Thanks a bunch!
Signature: Sean

Doodlebug Pits

Hi Sean,
We are guessing you have not lived at this location for a very long time.  It appears that you have a thriving community of immature Antlions, commonly called Doodlebugs.  Doodlebugs are predators that dig pits in sandy soil and then lie buried at the bottom, sometimes with only their jaws exposed. 

When an ant or other hapless insects walks close to the edge of the pit, the sandy soil crumbles away and the insect falls into the bottom of the pit and right into the waiting jaws of the Doodlebug.  Young children who grow up in areas where there are Doodlebugs often “fish” for them with a blade of grass. 

Here is a link to a nice image of a Doodlebug from our archives.  Adult Antlions look nothing like the subterranean larvae.  Read this posting from our archives for a tip on how to catch an elusive Doodlebug.

Letter 2 – Antlion and larval Doodlebug

Lacy winged visitor in Tomato Patch
Location: Central Florida, Apopka
April 14, 2011 10:17 pm
While working in my garden the other day, I witnessed this critter fly across my tomato patch and light on one of the Tomato cages.

I grabbed my camera to add it to my album of garden visitors and while I have excellent images, I’m unable to find out the name of my guest. The weather here in Apopka is in the mid 80’s . Typical for the first week of April. The closest body of water is approximately 500 yards across the street in a cow pasture.
Signature: Lee

Antlion

Hi Lee,
It is quite perceptive that you referred to this Antlion as a “lacy winged visitor” because Antlions are closely related to Lacewings and they are both grouped together in the Nerve Winged Insect order Neuroptera.  Antlions like Lacewings are predatory.  They have a feeble flight. 

Many Antlions have larvae known as Doodlebugs that dig pits in sandy soil.  The Doodlebug buries itself at the bottom of the pit with only its massive jaws exposed and it waits for prey to stumble into the pit. 

We have found unsubstantiated references, including this wonderful Worsley School page, that adult Antlions feed upon nectar and pollen, or that they do not eat as adults.  Most information about their predatory habits is restricted to the larval Doodlebugs.

That is just way too cool !!!!!!!!  Thank You so much for your response.
I have  Ant lions or Doodlebugs all around my house and I have always thought of them as a beneficial insect acting as a sentinel protecting the border of my home.
It’s photo’s like this that make me glad I pay attention to natures many eyes that are watching me as I work in the yard and outside in our world in general.
Thanks once again for sharing your knowledge on this incredible website.
Lee

Antlion Colony

As my Thanks to you for the quick ID of my Garden Visitor, I went on a “Lion Hunt” for you.
Attached are the results of the Hunt. I hope you enjoy them.
Lee

Doodlebug

Hi again Lee,
That is one impressive Antlion colony.  We are surprised that you never noticed the adult Antlions before. 

We understand that in some areas, children are taught to capture Doodlebugs by fishing  with a blade of grass or a piece of straw from a broom.  The Doodlebug latches onto the grass or straw with its jaws and it can then be extracted from the pit it has dug.

Letter 3 – Antlion from Australia

Subject:  Identification
Geographic location of the bug:  Central West western australia
Date: 02/26/2018
Time: 06:43 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I have seen these many times over my lifetime but never known what they are. I have tried to find info via Google and the closest thing I’ve found is cicada.
How you want your letter signed:  Regards, Helen

Antlion

Dear Helen,
This is an Antlion, not a Cicada.  The larvae of Antlions are frequently called Doodlebugs.

Letter 4 – Antlion from Australia

Subject: Ant Lion
Location: Buderim, Australia
October 6, 2014 8:35 pm
Hi,
I just found this bug on our garage wall (under the house). I live at Buderim, Queensland, Australia. It looks like an ant lion or lacewing in the larval stage. It has debris attached to it’s body and when moved rolls up into a ball as much as possible. It is just over 1 cm long.
Signature: Stuthie

Antlion covered in debris

Antlion covered in debris

Dear Stuthie,
Your images are positively gorgeous.  We hope you don’t mind that we color corrected them.  This larval Antlion is quite distinctive in that it is covered in debris.  Antlions are related to Lacewings, and some Lacewing Larvae, aka Aphid Wolves, also cloak themselves in debris that is composed of the carcasses of their prey. 

Those mandibles, those the jaws of death, do not seem what one would expect on Doodlebugs, a common North American name for Antlion larvae that await, buried at the bottoms of cone shaped holes, for all hapless ants or other creatures to fall into their clutches.

Gaping Jaws of a Doodlebug

Gaping Jaws of a Doodlebug

Letter 5 – Antlion

Larry the Bug
Sat, May 2, 2009 at 2:37 PM
Found on my wall around the bathroom light. Yes, that is my wall, the wings are translucent. We named him/her Larry, but never seen before. Stayed there most of the night, but was gone in the morning.
Stan the man
West Texas

Antlions

Antlions

Dear Stan the Man,
Larry the Bug is an Antlion.  Antlions are Nerve Winged Insects in the family Myrmeleontidae.  The larvae are also known as Doodle Bugs and they dig small pits in the sand to trap ants and other insects.  The Doodle Bug lies at the bottom of the pit buried in the sand with just its jaws protruding.

Letter 6 – Ghost Moth, Poinciana Longicorn and Antlion found in one night in Australia

moth ID
Location: Termeil,NSW….state forest
January 30, 2012 8:18 am
translucent bug,2.5” long,turned up before rain not long after sunset,temp 30C plenty other bugs around,attracted to light…and there’s another moth and a Longhorn Beetle all in the one night.
Signature: Bugger

Ghost Moth

Dear Bugger,
Taxonomically, your three creatures are in three different insect orders, which screws around with our method of archiving postings, however, they are significant in that all three appeared in one night, so we are making an exception and keeping the posting intact. 

Your moth that is on the shoe is a Ghost Moth in the family Cossidae, and they are also called Goat Moths, Carpenter Moths or Wood Moths according to the Butterfly House website.  The larvae are called Witchety Grubs.  We just posted a letter yesterday with seven awesome images of a mating pair of Ghost Moths, so it would seem they are currently in season in Australia.

Poinciana Longicorn

We are nearly certain that your beetle is a Poinciana Longicorn, Agrianome spinicollis, and the larva is another wood boring grub.  The photo from the Agriculture of Western Australia website is a match. 

The Queensland Museum website states:  “This species is found in rainforest and open forest in eastern Australia. It is common in Queensland and New South Wales and also occurs on Lord Howe Island. The larvae are huge white grubs found in rotten wood, especially dead Poinciana or fig trees.

It is an important pest of pecan trees. The large adults sometimes blunder into house lights.  Identification  Length 60 mm. This is a very large, broad longhorned beetle with khaki wing-covers and a reddish-brown thorax edged with a row of pointed ‘teeth’. The antennae are a little longer than the body.”

Your final insect is some species of Antlion in the family Myrmeleontidae and you can see some examples on the Brisbane Insect website.  We believe it is most likely Heoclisis fundata which is pictured on Dave’s Garden.

Antlion

Letter 7 – Antlion

help identify
Great site! Could you please help identify this night visitor to home in Winchester, Virginia. Thanks.
Dave

Hi Dave,
This is an Antlion. The larvae are also called Doodlebugs.

Letter 8 – Antlion

Dynastes tityus female and Glenurus gratus
After a little searching on your website, I identified these two specimens found in my front yard. I live in Missouri below St. Louis. Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus female. She is 6.3 cm. (2.5 in.) from the head to the tip of the last leg.

You can see the right side of the carapace is cracked because my dad stepped on the poor girl last night and that is how she was found. We released her this morning:
Jenny

Hi Jenny,
Because it makes it difficult to archive letters with species belonging on different pages, and because we just posted a letter with both a male and female Eastern Hercules Beetle, we will only be posting your lovely image of an Antlion, Glenurus gratus, probably the most magnificent Antlion found in North America.

Letter 9 – Antlion

Neither dragon nor fair damsel?
Hello,
We found this little fellow flying about the house. Three years ago I found and photographed what seems to be the same type of creature dead in a spider web, much less identifiable. The body is about 1″ to maybe 1-1/4″ long. It flies like a dragonfly, but it folds its wings back like a damselfly. I had to disturb it a bit to get the photo with more open wings.

Unlike a damselfly, it has quite pronounced antennae. It also seems to prefer to land flat on a flat (usually vertical) area rather than perching like a dragonfly. I’m at a loss and so is a friend who is better at identification. Do you know what it is?
Dave
Oak Ridge, TN

Hi Dave,
We are totally smitten by the poetry of your subject line. This is an Antlion. Antlion larvae are known as Doodlebugs. Doodlebugs dig a pit in sandy soil, and wait buried at the bottom with only their formidable jaws exposed. They devour any small prey that slips into the pit.

Hello Daniel,
Thank you very much! We have the larval form of antlions aplenty. I’ve never realized what the adult form looked like and I would never have thought of it. Now I am surprised that I have not seen more of these.
Dave

Letter 10 – Antlion

Odd Damselfly?
Hi! I’ve been enjoying your site, and have identified various bugs, including a gorgeous giant leopard moth. But I’ve got a bug that I haven’t been able to find anywhere. My children found it right next to our door last week.

I took one picture, then got it to move and took another picture. It seemed to be pretty much all one dark brown color, except its wings, which were translucent with dark brown veins.

At first I thought it was a moth because of the way the wings were held, but then I saw the exceptionally long abdomen, the translucent wings, and the rest of it, it just didn’t look like a moth.

I couldn’t tell if it had one or two sets of wings. I was wondering if it might be some odd sort of damselfly? Sorry I had to take pictures of it on brick, I know that’s not helpful. Thank you!
Marilyn, in Florida

Hi Marilyn,
This is an Antlion, probably Brachynemurus longicaudus. You can find them on our Neuropteran pages.

Letter 11 – Antlion

Identification?
I was wondering if you could identify this bug? I am guessing it is some type of wasp. I found it in the Summer while I was at a research center in the Mojave Desert.

Also, the picture was also taken at night. Thanks for any help that you can give. Thank You,
Richard Coleman

Hi Richard,
This is an Antlion. They are often attracted to light. The larvae are known as Doodlebugs.

Letter 12 – Antlion

Can you identify this “fly” ?
Please help if you know this one. Thanks so much,
Coco McCoy
Insect may been shot in Missouri

Hi Coco,
This is Glenurus gratus, a species of Antlion.

Letter 13 – Antlion

a picture for you
This is one exotic that I have never seen, to my recollection. This digitql shot wqs tqken in the evening in Castaic, CA, illluminated by a fluorescent bulb. Can you help in it’s ID
Walt

Hi Walt,
This is an Antlion. Antlions are in the family Myrmeleontidae.

Letter 14 – Antlion

Hi Bugman.
I found this insect at a wildlife refuge in northwest Colorado. At first I thought it was a damsel fly, but when I got a better look it doesn’t appear to be that at all.

It’s overall length was a little less than 2 inches, and there were several of them flying about and hiding in tall grass not far from a pond. An ID on this guy would really help me out. Thanks, Tom W.
Dear Tom,
It is an Antlion, Family Myrmeleontidae. The larvae are called Doodle Bugs and they bury themselves in the sand at the bottom of a pit and wait for other insects, including ants, to fall into their waiting jaws. Adults are feeble fliers and are attracted to lights.

Authors

  • Daniel Marlos

    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.

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