Antlion Versus Dragonfly: An Epic Insect Showdown

Antlions and dragonflies are fascinating insects that are often found in similar environments, captivating the attention of nature enthusiasts.

These creatures, although similar in appearance at first glance, vary in many ways, including their ecology, behavior, and life stages.

Differences In A Nutshell

The antlion (Myrmeleon sp.) is best known for its larvae, commonly called “doodlebugs,” which create funnel-shaped pits to trap ants and other small insects.

Adult antlions resemble drab-colored damselflies but have clubbed or curved antennae.

Adult Antlion

Dragonflies, on the other hand, belong to the order Odonata and include many species. Adult dragonflies are generalist predators, feeding on various day-flying insects such as flies.

Known for their agility and speed, these insects are an amazing sight to behold as they skillfully navigate through the air.

A Group of Dragonflies. Source:
Shyamal
, via Wikimedia Commons

While adult antlions prey on insects, their primary focus is on mating and laying eggs. Dragonflies, however, have a more predatory lifestyle throughout their life stages, with their aquatic nymphs feeding on various aquatic organisms.

Furthermore, antlions lay their eggs in sandy or loose soil where their larvae create cone-like traps, whereas dragonflies lay their eggs in water, allowing their nymphs to live in an aquatic environment.

Antlion and Dragonfly Overview

Origin and Classification

  • Antlion: Belongs to the family Myrmeleontidae and order Neuroptera.
  • Dragonfly: Belongs to the order Odonata.

These insects are related to one another but belong to different orders within the class Insecta.

Physical Appearance and Structure

Antlion

  • Adult antlions have long, slender bodies and large, transparent wings.
  • Larval antlions, or “doodlebug larvae,” are oval, plump, flattened, and soft-bodied with large, sicklelike pincers on their heads.

Dragonfly

  • Adult dragonflies have elongated bodies, large eyes, and two pairs of transparent wings.
  • Dragonfly larvae, also called “nymphs,” are aquatic, drab in color, and have small wing buds on their thoraxes.

Below is a comparison table of their features:

FeatureAntlionDragonfly
OrderNeuropteraOdonata
Typical habitatSandy or soft soilFreshwater environments
Adult wings2 pairs, large, transparent2 pairs, large, transparent
Adult eyesSmaller and less round than those of dragonfliesLarge and round
Larvae pincersLarge, sicklelike on the headAbsent
Larvae habitatBeneath soil surfaceAquatic environments
Larvae feedingPredatory, ambush preyPredatory, actively hunting
GillsAbsentLocated inside the rectum of nymphs

It is essential to note that although antlions and dragonflies have similarities in their adult forms, they show significant differences in their larval stages and habitats.

Life Cycle and Development

Reproduction and Offspring

Antlions:

  • Female antlions lay eggs in soil or sand
  • Larvae emerge from eggs and dig pits to catch prey

Dragonflies:

  • Female dragonflies lay eggs in or near water
  • Larvae, called nymphs, hatch and live in water

Metamorphosis and Stages

Antlions:

  1. Larvae: Antlion larvae, also called doodlebugs, have:
    • Six legs
    • Oval, plump, flattened bodies
    • Large, sickle-like pincers to catch prey
  2. Cocoon: Fully-grown larvae form a cocoon in the ground to transform into the adult stage
  3. Adult: Adult antlions:
    • Resemble fragile, drab damselflies
    • Have an elongated body and four intricately veined wings
    • Live for about one month
Doodlebug (Antlion larva)

Dragonflies:

  1. Eggs: Laid in or near water, hatch into nymphs
  2. Nymphs: Dragonfly nymphs:
    • Live in water
    • Grow and shed their exoskeleton multiple times (incomplete metamorphosis)
  3. Adult: Adult dragonflies:
    • Emerge from the water after approximately 25 days (can vary depending on species)
    • Live several weeks to a few months (depending on species)

Comparison Table:

 AntlionsDragonflies
EggsLaid in soil or sandLaid in or near water
Larvae/NymphsCalled doodlebugs, dig pitsCalled nymphs, aquatic, shed exoskeleton
Cocoon/TransformationForm a cocoon in the groundNo cocoon stage
Adult LifespanApproximately one monthSeveral weeks to a few months
EnvironmentTerrestrialAquatic and terrestrial
A Dragonfly. Source: Laitche, Via Wikimedia Commons

Habitat and Behavior

Preferring Surroundings

Antlions and dragonflies exhibit distinct preferences when it comes to their habitat.

  • Antlions: They primarily dwell in sandy, dry soil, making it easier for them to create pit traps for ants and other prey.
  • Dragonflies: Favoring areas near water sources, such as ponds, marshes, and lakes, providing them access to their preferred prey, including mosquito larvae and small aquatic insects.

Predatory Habits

Both antlions and dragonflies are predators with unique hunting strategies.

Antlions

Antlions lay in wait in their pit traps, which they create by digging into the sand or soil. When an unsuspecting ant or other small insect falls in, the antlion quickly grabs it with its mandibles and pulls it under.

Dragonflies

Dragonflies are agile, fast fliers that capture their prey while in flight. Their long and slender forewings, coupled with their large anal region, enable them to perform complex aerial maneuvers as they hunt.

FeatureAntlionsDragonflies
HabitatSandy, dry soilWater sources (ponds, marshes, lakes)
PreyAnts, small insectsMosquito larvae, small aquatic insects
Hunting MethodPit trapsAerial capture

Physical Adaptations

Wings and Flight

Antlion:

  • Short, plump body
  • Elongated, club-like antennae

Antlions have a short body and elongated, club-like antennae. Their wings are transparent, with a wingspan of about 30-65 mm and a network of veins that provide support and flexibility.

Dragonfly:

  • Streamlined body
  • Long, slender abdomen

Dragonflies have a streamlined body and a long, slender abdomen. Their wings, also transparent, have a wingspan ranging from 50-110 mm, and their structure consists of a more complex network of veins.

Comparing wing features:

FeatureAntlionDragonfly
Wingspan30-65 mm50-110 mm
Vein ComplexitySimpleComplex
Wing FlexibilityModerateHigh

Catching and Consuming Prey

Antlion larvae:

  • Pitfall traps
  • Mandibles for piercing and sucking

Antlion larvae catch prey through pitfall traps, with their large mandibles that are adapted for piercing and sucking. One specific prey of the antlion larvae is ants.

Dragonfly:

  • Aerial predation
  • Agile and fast flight
  • Catch prey using legs

Dragonflies are aerial predators, both agile and fast in flight. They catch their prey mid-air using their legs to form a “basket” and consume them with their powerful jaws.

Mating Process

Antlion:

In the antlion mating process, the male grasps the female’s wings, ensuring proper alignment for mating.

Dragonfly:

Dragonfly mating involves the male clasping the female’s head or thorax, while the female reaches the male’s reproductive organs with her abdomen. This unique formation is commonly called the “mating wheel.”

Role in Ecosystem

As Pollinators and Food Sources

Antlions

  • Predominantly consume ants and other small insects
  • Larvae create intricate pitfall traps to capture prey
  • Not known for their role as pollinators
  • Provide food for larger predators like birds and spiders

Dragonflies

  • Eat significant amounts of smaller flying insects, including mosquitoes
  • Dragonfly larvae are essential food for fish
  • Not pollinators, but do help control insect populations
  • Adults are often seen around ponds and lakes hunting for food
Source: Michael Palmer, Via Wikimedia Commons
FeatureAntlionsDragonflies
FoodAnts, other small insectsMosquitoes, smaller insects
Pollination roleNoneNone
Predatory habitsPitfall trapsAerial hunting

Beneficial and Detrimental Impacts

Antlions

  • Beneficial: Control ant and small arthropod population
  • Detrimental: Can cause a decline in some insect species due to predation

Dragonflies

  • Beneficial: Natural pest control, reducing mosquito and other insect populations
  • Detrimental: Limited; may slightly affect other insect populations through predation

Common Species and Distributions

Dragonflies

Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata and the suborder Anisoptera. They are agile, fast fliers and generalist predators.

Some common species include the Roseate Skimmer Dragonfly, which can be found across the southern United States, including Florida (source). You can often spot them in gardens during the day.

Features:

  • Bristly legs to scoop up insects
  • Long, slender bodies
  • Large, multifaceted eyes

Antlions

Antlions are part of the Neuropteran family and are related to dragonflies. Adult antlions resemble damselflies but have clubbed or curved antennae (source).

In contrast, antlion larvae, also known as doodlebugs, have a more oval and flattened appearance (source).

Characteristics:

  • Elongated body
  • Four intricately veined wings
  • Large, sickle-shaped pincers (larvae)

Comparison Table:

 DragonfliesAntlions
Order/SuborderOdonata/AnisopteraNeuroptera
PredatoryYesYes
HabitatGardens, pondsSandy/loose soil
Activity TimeDaytimeEvening/night
DistributionWide-rangingVaries

Antlions are often found in the South, where they create conical pits in sandy or loose soil. They are usually active during the evening and are sometimes called evening owlflies.

Conclusion

In summary, dragonflies and antlions share a place in the animal kingdom but have differences in their features, habitats, and activity patterns.

While dragonflies are typically seen in gardens during the day, antlions are more active during the evening in sandy environments.

Understanding the difference between the two can help to identify the benefits they provide to the ecosystem. It can also help to know and prevent the possible damage that they can cause.

Footnotes

  1. Antlion Adults 2 3

  2. Smithsonian Scientists Unlock the Mystery of Dragonfly Migration

  3. Phylogeny of Libellulidae (Odonata: Anisoptera)

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 – Antlion

Lovely adult antlion
Just thought you might like a gander at this lovely creature. . . clinging to a jasmine branch. . . Florida, mid-August. . . very shy . . . kept creeping to the opposite side of the branch from my camera. . . love the diaphanous wings.
Diane

Hi Diane,
Thanks for the awesome Antlion photo.

Letter 2 – Antlion

Antlion pics
Thank you for creating a wonderful site that serves so many people. Your site answered my question about the huge antlion adults I’ve been seeing. I was pretty sure they were antlions, but the size seemed to rule out antlions because I’d never seen a larva big enough to create such monstrous adults.

These pics are of one 3.5 inches long overall – far too but to be from a larva that makes the familiar funnel-shaped pit in sand or sandy soil (the pit would be a foot across).

Can you tell me where these larvae live, what they look like and what they eat? I suppose they would take forever to get this big eating the occassional ant. What could they be eating, grasshoppers?

Feel free to post the pics if you want, although you already have some nice ones. Maybe this is a different species. By the way, the antlion/lacewing-looking larva from Thailand could still be an antlion, though found on a bush and not in the soil.

I’ve seen antlion larvae crawling on trees, bushes, and rocks, possibly looking for better soil. They are awkward, but they get around. Lacewing larvae are far more agile, so observing the larva in question might help identify it.

Now if you can get that photo to move… Thanks again for a great site,
Martin Adams

Hi Martin,
Thank you for your wonderful letter and your gorgeous Antlion image. Adults, according to the Audubon Guide, drink nectar, eat pollen, or do not eat at all. Eric Eaton provided this information:

“Ok, before I forget, the ant lion is Vella fallax, or another species in the genus Vella. Yes, they are huge! Remember, in North America, only the larvae of the genus Myrmeleon make the pits.

That means the larva of THIS beast must simply wait in ambush somewhere, perhaps half-buried on the surface of the sand.”

Letter 3 – Antlion Studying Algebra!!!

Bug studying geometry
Location: Sulpher Springs Valley, Cochise County, Arizona
March 27, 2012, 5:54 pm
This beautiful insect landed on my mother’s notes for her Geometry students.

I’d assumed it was a dragonfly, but this is southeastern Arizona near the Cochise Stronghold (in the Dragoon Mountains) and the nearest source of water is a small pond which I believe is man-made.

I searched websites of Arizona dragonflies and came up with nothing, and someone said it was not a dragonfly (though they didn’t know what it was). I don’t know if any genus has a penchant for geometry, so I suppose the setting isn’t much help!

Signature: Timothy J

Antlion

Hi Timothy,
Thank you for submitting such a humorous and amusing photograph.  Though it superficially resembles a Dragonfly, this Antlion is not even closely related.

Thanks for the very quick response! My mother corrected me and said she thinks she was teaching Algebra, not Geometry, though the appearance of Pi had me fooled.

So if scientists ever use this photo for behavioral studies in entomology it is Algebra, not Geometry, which the Antlion has an affinity to, which I might have guessed if the climates of Arizona and Arabia (from which Algebra comes)  are to be compared.

For reference, two common insects in the vicinity are the notorious Fire Ant, and the Horse Lubber (which we refer to as the “Mexican Grasshopper,” perhaps improperly).

Letter 4 – Antlion

Subject: Beautiful Dragonfly
Location: Goodlettsville, TN
July 22, 2012, 8:42 pm
Hello! As a lover of bugs and insects, I have found your site quite a helpful resource.

I searched through about 15 pages of dragonflies tonight hoping to spot an example of this beauty I spotted on my aunt’s porch a little bit north of Nashville, TN about 2 weeks ago.

It is beautiful but I am unable to identify it. I hope that this is a new bug for your site, and I also hope that you know what it is! Thanks!
Signature: Shannon

Antlion: Glenurus gratus

Hi Shannon,
We hope that perusing our Dragonfly pages was not a complete waste of time even though you were searching through the wrong insect order.  This gorgeous Antion,
Glenurus gratus, is actually classified as a Neuropteran along with Lacewings and Owlflies.

Letter 5 – Antlion

Subject: Weird bug in Florida
Location: Inverness, Florida.
September 16, 2012, 12:11 pm
Hi,
My roommate took a photo of this bug, but we have no idea what it is. We live in Central Florida. Can you tell us what it is? Thanks in advance.
Signature: S. Wiles

Antlion

Dear S. Wiles,
This is an Antlion and we believe it is
Vella americana based on photos posted to BugGuide.

Letter 6 – Antlion

Subject: Hanging out on my living room wall.
Location: Austin, TX
March 25, 2013 9:21 pm
I’ve been trying to identify this really pretty bug. It’s iridescent and looks like a piece of jewelry. I thought it might be a dobsonfly, but the abdomen is too long and seems to have pincers on the end. I’m in Austin, TX.
Signature: Samoq

Antlion

Antlion

Dear Samoq,
This is an Antlion, and it does look like a piece of jewelry.  In preparation for a trip away from the offices, we are postdating your submission to go live later in the week.

Letter 7 – Antlion

Subject: Moth
Location: Brevard ,fl
July 7, 2013 6:04 pm
Was wondering what this bug was called
Signature: April

Antlion

Antlion

Dear April,
Despite resembling a moth, this is actually an Antlion,
Vella americana, and you can compare your individual to this photo on BugGuide.

I have never seen the adult form only the larvae. A couple of years ago my son did a science project on them, only to find out they grow to have wings. This is great to actually see one .

Thank you.

Letter 8 – Antlion

Subject: Mutant Dragonfly…?
Location: Texas Hill Country
July 16, 2013 8:17 pm
I found this rather large, fuzzy, four-winged bug on my fence today. I am just really curious to know what it is, as are several other people I know. Any help is greatly appreciated. Thanks.
Signature: Curious

Antlion

Antlion

Dear Curious,
This is an Antlion,
Vella americana

You can verify our identification on BugGuide.  If you and your neighbors are not familiar with the winged adult Antlion, perhaps you recall as a child playing with the larvae, commonly called Doodlebugs, which dig a pit in loose sandy soil. 

The saber-jawed larva buries itself at the bottom of the pit and waits for unwary insects to tumble into its jaws.

Letter 9 – Antlion

Subject: Antlion?
Location: southeastern Washington state
July 22, 2013 4:35 pm
Hi there! My son and I have been visiting this site ever since he started showing interest in bugs (he LOVES them).

We looked over your site trying to identify this one and the closest we came was an antlion (unless we missed something…there are a lot of bugs!). Were we right?

This guy was nearly three inches long and appeared on the exterior wall of our house in July. Thanks!
Signature: M. Conway

Antlion

Antlion

Dear M. Conway,
You are correct that this is an Antlion, and we believe we have correctly identified the species as
 Myrmeleon exitialis based on photos posted to BugGuide and this statement on the genus page of BugGuide

“6 eastern and 5 western spp.; M. exitialis is the only one that ranges into Canada.”  BugGuide also notes:  “the only genus in our area whose larvae make the funnel-shaped pits.”

Letter 10 – Antlion

Subject: Dragonfly?
Location: South Carolina
August 31, 2014, 6:44 pm
I have never seen this bug before. Is it some kind of dragonfly?
Signature: Nikon

Antlion

Antlion

Dear Nikon,
You are not the first person who has written to us mistaking an Antlion for a Dragonfly.  In our minds, the greatest similarity they possess is the way the wings move, but not the way the wings are held. 

The wings of both orders, Neuroptera and Odonata, are able to move independently of one another.  Of Neuroptera, BugGuide states:  “Four membranous wings: FW and HW about same size or HW a little wider at base;  wings usually held rooflike over body at rest; wings generally with many veins.” 

Of Dragonflies in the suborder Anisoptera of the order Odonata, BugGuide states:  “Wings usually held outstretched horizontally at rest. Hindwing is broader at base than the forewing.

Male has three terminal appendages on abdomen; female has only two.  Males and females often colored differently.

Details important to identification include face color, eye color, color and markings on the thorax and wings, color of the pterostigma (small colored area near the front edge of the wing), color and markings of the abdomen and shape of the abdomen.

Recently emerged (teneral) individuals are often pale, unmarked, and impossible to identify until they develop the adult color pattern. Some change color several times on the way to sexual maturity (within a few days); some change color with temperature, and some also change color after death.” 

Additional differences include the complexity of metamorphosis.  Dragonflies have incomplete metamorphosis with aquatic nymphs known as Naiads.  Antlions have complete metamorphosis which includes a dormant pupa, and the terrestrial larvae are known as Doodlebugs.

Letter 11 – Antlion

Subject: Please I’d this bug
Location: Creston, California
August 11, 2015, 5:29 pm
This is a picture of a bug that seems to come out at night and for a few hours during the day. I live in very rural Creston, California.
Signature: Laurie

Antlion

Antlion

Dear Laurie,
This male Antlion has an impressive set of claspers on the tip of his abdomen.  We believe we have correctly identified him as
Brachynemurus sackeni thanks to this image on BugGuide.

Letter 12 – Antlion

Subject: large moth
Location: north central Florida, usa
August 30, 2015 10:11 am
I took this picture of a moth on a wood post this morning.
Signature: Laurie

Antlion

Antlion

Dear Laurie,
This is not a moth.  Based on images posted to BugGuide, we believe your Antlion is
Vella americana.

Letter 13 – Antlion

Subject: Bug o mania
Location: South West Missouri
June 24, 2016 4:18 pm
I found this bug in my garage it’s about the size of my index finger but it’s weird looking and I can’t find it anywhere so I was wondering if you could tell me what kind of bug this is it looks like some kind of moth or something.

Signature: JACK BONE

Antlion

Antlion

Dear Jack,
This species,
Glenurus gratus, it one of the loveliest of the Antlions in the family Myrmeleontidae.  Antlions are closely related to Lacewings and Owlflies in the order Neuroptera.

Letter 14 – Antlion

Subject: Unknown damselfly or dragonfly
Location: NE San Diego County
July 17, 2016, 2:25 pm
Hi! Saw this beauty hanging out on the sunny side of my house for several hours. When it flew away, it was flying like a damselfly or dragonfly.

It is about 2″ long, and at first, I thought it might be a female dobsonfly but it didn’t appear to have mandibles or a wide body.
Signature: -LP

Antlion

Antlion

Dear LP,
This is neither a Dragonfly, a Damselfly, nor a Dobsonfly.  It is an Antlion, one of the Neuropterans that are related to Lacewings and Owlflies.

Letter 15 – Antlion

Subject: What’s this bug?
Location: Elko Co. Nevada
August 12, 2016, 8:26 pm
My house is located in a high desert in northeastern Nevada. 2.5-3″ in length, lacy, delicate wings, grey in color, identical maybe slightly smaller partner s few feet away. August 2016.
Signature: Shannon

Antlion

Antlion

Hi Shannon,
This is an Antlion in the family Myrmeleontidae.  We will attempt to identify the species.

VERY COOL.  Let me know what you find out and I’ll try to search some data too!  There were two of these yesterday late afternoon/early evening on the south wall.
Thanks,
Shannon
Elko County, NV

Letter 16 – Antlion

Subject: Big fly
Location: Arizona
August 17, 2016 10:24 am
Someone suggested it could be a salmon fly. It’s similar but not the same as the photos I’ve found. It is on my front porch. No water nearby, though we’ve had a little rain this past week.

Neighbors down the street have a pool but would like fly eggs to survive the chlorine. Even with rain, it’s very dry in zip code 86326.
Signature: Bug aficionado

Antlion

Antlion

Dear Bug aficionado,
This is most definitely NOT a Salmonfly.  It is an Antlion in the family Myrmeleontidae and we believe we have correctly identified it as
Vella fallax thanks to images posted to BugGuide where it states: 

“very large, wingspan to circa 120 mm, with tropical specimens even larger.”  Antlion larvae are sometimes called Doodlebugs.  The larvae of many species lie buried in the sand at the bottom of a pit where they wait with only their mandibles exposed for hapless creatures to fall into their jaws. 

We suspect the creators of the “graboids” from the movie Tremors used Doodlebugs as inspiration.

Thank you! I used to recite the “doodlebug” poem when I was a child visiting cousins in NC. I had no idea they were ant predators.

Letter 17 – Antlion

Subject: What kind of bug is this
Location: LA California
September 17, 2016 7:23 pm
What kind of bug is this.

I and my friends keep disputing whether it is a dragonfly or not my mother passed away on Sunday and Monday at 1 AM and there was this insect flying around at my window pain and I’m just curious what kind

Signature: The truth

Antlion

Antlion

Dear The Truth,
This is an Antlion, and it is more closely related to Neuropterans like Lacewings and Owlflies than it is to Dragonflies, which belong to a distinctly different insect order.

  Many Antlion Larvae, which are commonly called Doodlebugs, live with only their mandibles exposed at the bottom of a small pit they excavate, awaiting Ants and other insects to fall into their waiting jaws. 

We just posted several images of Bee Flies from Los Angeles that parasitize the pupae of Antlions.  We don’t see many Antlions, but we do see Bee Flies, leading us to believe our Antlion population is being kept in check by the Bee Flies. 

Your Antlion may be Vella fallax based on this and other BugGuide images.

Letter 18 – Antlion

Subject: Long-Tailed Lace Wing Flying Insect
Location: Menifee, California
June 22, 2017, 4:37 pm
Hello,
I found this lovely specimen on the siding of my porch this morning. It’s now late afternoon and I can’t blame him/her for resting here during all the heat we’re having. It’s about a total of 2in. long and about 5/8in. in width at the widest point.

Very symmetrical flying insect.
Signature: Dave Nadzam

Antlion

Dear Dave,
The reason you noticed a similarity between your Antlion and a Lacewing is that they are classified in the same insect order, Neuroptera.  Based on images posted to BugGuide, we believe your individual is in the genus
Scotoleon.

Letter 19 – Antlion

Subject:  Scary bug
The geographic location of the bug:  Central Florida
Date: 09/02/2017
Time: 06:27 PM EDT
We saw this on our back porch and tried to identify it on the internet. The closest we found was a dobsonfly, but our bug has fuzzy legs and mandibles and clear wings and none of the photos on the internet show this.

How you want your letter signed:  Kim

Antlion

Hi Kim,
We feel quite confident that your harmless Antlion is
Vella Americana based on its visual resemblance to the individual in this BugGuide image.  According to BugGuide:  “very large–wingspan to circa 125 mm, body length circa 50 mm.”

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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