Antlions, renowned for their predatory sand traps, lead a life of transformation and adaptability.
Starting as voracious larvae that hunt ants and small insects, they metamorphose into nectar-feeding adults with delicate wings.
This article delves into their intriguing lifecycle, dietary habits, and widespread habitats, offering a comprehensive look at these fascinating creatures.
- Larvae: Often referred to as “doodlebugs“, antlion larvae are small, with a robust, oval-shaped body. They possess large, curved mandibles used for capturing prey.
- Adults: Adult antlions resemble dragonflies or damselflies. They have slender bodies, long, delicate wings, and are often pale in color. They are often confused with dragonflies.
- Egg: The antlion lifecycle begins when a female antlion lays her eggs in the sand.
- Larval Stage: Once hatched, the larvae dig conical pits in sandy terrains to trap ants and other small insects. They remain in this predatory stage for several months to years, undergoing multiple molts.
- Pupal Stage: After the final larval molt, they form a spherical cocoon in the sand and enter the pupal stage.
- Adult Stage: Emerging from the cocoon, the adult antlion has a short lifespan, during which it primarily feeds on nectar and seeks mates to reproduce.
Distribution and Habitat
Antlions have a global presence. They’re predominantly found in tropical and subtropical zones.
Their preferred habitats are sandy terrains. Such areas are ideal for them to construct their signature pits.
In the US, antlions have been found in these places:
- Wisconsin: Antlions are found on beaches, sandy forests, and farmlands.
- Florida: The state boasts a rich diversity of antlions, with 22 species across nine genera. Notably, four of these species are exclusive to the Florida Keys.
- Oregon: The iconic Crater Lake region is home to these insects.
- Iowa, New Hampshire, and Arizona: The spotted-winged antlions have been observed in these states.
- California: The state is known to have antlion larvae.
Their preferred habitats are:
- Sandy soil within flower beds.
- Sheltered regions under hedges or eaves.
- Undeveloped city plots.
- Areas beneath buildings set on piers.
Identifying and Locating Antlions
One of the most distinctive signs of antlions is the conical depressions they create in dry sand, which are their hunting pits.
These pits are often abundant in sheltered areas with sandy soil.
For instance, regions under roof overhangs and beneath raised foundations are prime spots to find these pits.
What Do Antlions Eat?
Antlions have distinct dietary habits that vary between their larval and adult stages:
Larvae: Known as “doodlebugs”, antlion larvae are ambush predators. They create conical pits in sandy terrains to trap their prey, primarily consisting of ants and other small insects. Once trapped, the larvae use their sharp mandibles to capture and consume the prey.
Adults: After metamorphosis, the dietary habits of antlions shift significantly. Adult antlions primarily feed on nectar from flowers. However, they might occasionally consume other soft-bodied prey, such as aphids or mites.
In the following sections, we will discuss their dietary habits in more detail.
Antlion Larvae: The Predatory Stage
Antlion larvae are insects in their developmental stage. They’re commonly termed “doodlebugs”.
These larvae are known for creating conical pits in sandy terrain. These pits serve as effective traps for their prey.
The pits have steep walls, making escape difficult for trapped insects. When ants or other small insects fall in, they become easy prey for the lurking larvae below.
How Antlion Larvae Trap Their Food
Larvae create their pits using a distinct method. They walk backward in circles, methodically flicking away sand and tiny rocks.
The pits are characterized by their steep walls. This design ensures that once prey enters, escape becomes nearly impossible.
To further trap their prey, larvae employ a unique tactic. They fling sand at the pit’s edges, causing mini landslides that force the prey to the pit’s center, making capture inevitable.
Feeding Mechanism of Antlion Larvae
Antlion larvae don’t possess a typical mouth for biting. They have a fixed, shallow slit in its place.
These larvae utilize curved mandibles during feeding. They inject their prey with enzymes that break down and liquefy the soft tissues.
Subsequently, they consume the resulting nutritious liquid, extracting sustenance from the dissolved prey.
From their predatory larval stage, antlions undergo a transformation. They become nectar-feeding adults.
Adult antlions have distinct features. They possess slender bodies, resembling dragonflies, and are equipped with delicate wings.
In this stage, their diet shifts.
Adult antlions primarily feed on nectar from flowers. This nectar provides them with the necessary sugars and nutrients for energy.
In addition to nectar, some adult antlions might occasionally consume other soft-bodied prey, such as aphids or mites, but nectar remains their primary food source.
Florida’s Antlion Population
Florida, with its sandy terrain and warm climate, is particularly conducive for antlions.
They are common and easily observable insects in the state. As in other regions, their conical depressions in dry sand are telltale signs of their presence.
In Florida, the largest species of antlion is Vella americana. This species doesn’t build pits and instead hunts other insects by chasing them.
Predators of Antlions
Antlions, despite being predators themselves, are not exempt from the food chain. They have their own set of predators to contend with.
Animals and Insects that Prey on Antlions
- Birds: Insectivorous birds such as sparrows, warblers, and flycatchers might prey on antlions when they come across them.
- Spiders: Ground-dwelling spiders like wolf spiders or jumping spiders might capture and feed on antlion larvae.
- Larger Insects: Certain beetles and other predatory insects might prey on antlion larvae or adults.
- Amphibians: Frogs and toads, which feed on a variety of insects, can also consume antlions if they encounter them.
Antlion Defense Mechanisms and Survival Strategies
- Camouflage: Both larvae and adult antlions have colorations that blend well with sandy and earthy terrains, helping them remain undetected.
- Pit Construction: The conical pits not only serve as a trap for their prey but also act as a hiding spot for the larvae, keeping them concealed from potential predators.
- Rapid Burrowing: If threatened, antlion larvae can quickly burrow into the sand, evading capture.
- Flight: Adult antlions, with their delicate wings, can take to the air to escape ground-based threats.
How Often Do Antlions Eat?
Antlions do not have a fixed feeding schedule. The primary determinant is the availability of prey.
In areas abundant with ants or other small insects, antlions might feed more frequently. In captivity, they should be fed 2-4 times a day.
Their typical diet in captivity might include: Ants, Juvenile crickets, Flies, Tiny spiders, Small beetles, Mites, Caterpillars etc.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do antlions only eat ants?
No, antlions do not only eat ants. While ants are a primary prey for antlion larvae, especially given the name “antlion”, they also prey on other small insects that fall into their sand traps.
This can include beetles, spiders, and other small arthropods. However, ants are among the most commonly captured prey due to their frequent activity on the ground where antlion traps are typically located.
What do antlion larvae eat?
Antlion larvae primarily prey on ants and other small insects. They create conical pits in sandy terrains to trap their victims.
When ants or other small arthropods, such as beetles and spiders, fall into these pits, the antlion larvae use their sharp mandibles to capture and consume them.
While ants are a common prey due to their abundance and ground activity, antlion larvae are opportunistic and will feed on any small insect that becomes trapped in their pits.
Do antlions eat plants?
No, antlions do not eat plants. Antlion larvae are predators that feed on ants and other small insects.
Adult antlions primarily feed on nectar from flowers, but they do not consume plant tissues or parts.
The nectar provides them with essential sugars and nutrients, but they do not harm the plants in the process.
How do antlions eat their prey?
Antlions, in their larval stage, trap insects in conical sand pits. When prey falls in, the larva uses curved mandibles to grasp it, injecting digestive enzymes. These enzymes liquefy the prey’s insides. The larva then consumes the resulting nutritious liquid, leaving the insect’s exoskeleton behind. This efficient feeding mechanism allows antlions to extract maximum nutrients from their prey.
Antlions are unique insects known for their predatory behavior, especially during their larval stage. Larvae, termed “doodlebugs”, create sand pits to trap ants and other small insects.
Once trapped, they inject their prey with enzymes, liquefying them for consumption.
As adults, antlions undergo a significant transformation, resembling dragonflies and primarily feeding on nectar.
They have a global presence, especially in sandy terrains of tropical and subtropical regions.
Despite being predators, antlions have their own set of predators and employ various defense mechanisms.
Their feeding frequency is influenced by prey availability and environmental conditions.
Over the years, our website, 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
who am i?
hi bugman! our kids and i love your site! we have a bug we’d love to know more about. it’s 3 inches long and at the widest point of its wings it’s 1 inch across. we live in central florida and have many large, interesting bugs, but this is one that is new to us. we’ve sent along a picture of it taken on the tire of our car. its wings appear to be gray in the picture, but they are actually almost completly see-thru. thanks for your help!!!
the taylor family
Hi Taylor Family,
We located a nearly identical photo of an Antlion in the genus Vella on BugGuide. That specimen is also on a car tire and was also photographed in Florida.
Letter 2 – Antlion
Do you know what kind of bug this is? Does it have a common name?
This is a species of Antlion. The larvae of many Antlions create pits in the sand to trap insects including ants, and they are also called Doodlebugs, but according to BugGuide, the larvae of this species is “reported to live in cavities such as tree holes (among sawdust) and in burrows of Gopher Tortoise”. This species is Glenurus gratus, and it has no common name that we are aware of, but we propose Gorgeous Antlion.
Letter 3 – Antlion
Hi, y’all….I just got back from a trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas, where I saw a fox, deer, javalinas, hawks and other assorted wildlife…..including this bug in a rest stop bathroom somewhere near Ozona TX. What’s that bug, Daniel?
I also visited the Chinati Foundation…home of Donald Judd sculptures and other delights. I took a very short boat ride over to Mexico for some beer and tacos, and went to a "star party" at the McDonald Observatory too.
Now I’m back, but I’m still wondering….what’s that bug?
This appears to be an adult Antlion
Letter 4 – Antlion
what is this bug? August 4, 2009 found this outside my house , sorry for picture quality (cell phone) patrick AZ Hi Patrick, This is an Antlion, and we believe it is in the genus Scotoleon based on the photos posted to BugGuide which show a long abdomen. All the photos representing this genus on Bugguide are from Arizona, New Mexico and California. Immature Antlions are known as Doodlebugs.
Letter 5 – Antlion
ID request August 7, 2009 Hi there! I’m a huge fan of the website! We’ve had these hanging around for about 2 months here, and I can’t figure out what they are. They are nocturnal and seem to like my lights at night. They’re about 2″ long. They hold their wings either up like in this photo or folded along their sides like a damselfly. Mike Edgewood, NM at about 7000′ in the pinion forest Hi Mike, We have been getting in trouble lately for making assumptions, but we will tempt fate again and go that route. This is definitely an Antlion in the family Myrmeleontidae and your photo is stunning. We are assuming that since you said they were nocturnal, that this photo was taken at night with an electronic flash, which would explain the way the eyes have been reproduced. We found a similar portrait on BugGuide that generated much internet chatter, but the wing pattern on your specimen is very different. We suspect you may have an individual in the genus Brachynemurus which is described on BugGuide as: “Apparently a commonly encountered genus. Large. Abdomen soft, slender, long, usually (or always?) extends beyond wingtips. Wings long, venation fine and net-like. Wings not strongly marked in most species for which photos available. Antennae clubbed.” Your individual definitely has the long abdomen. BugGuide also indicates: “Food Adults reported to feed on small insects. Larvae predaceous. Life Cycle Adults mostly nocturnal. Larvae reported to be pit formers.” The larvae of Antlions that live in pits are called Doodlebugs. They are found in sandy soil and they wait buried in the sand at the bottom of the pit with only their jaws exposed, feeding on the hapless ants and insects that fall into the pit. Thank you! Yes, the photo was taken at night with a flash. If they eat insects, that would explain why they hang around the lights. Mike
Letter 6 – Antlion
What on earth is this? August 10, 2009 I’ve scoured the Internet, and I can’t figure this out. It looks like a damselfly with antennae. This was taken 7/16/08 at night. It was drawn to my porch light. shane Crawford County, Arkansas Hi shane, This is, in our opinion, the most beautiful North American Antlion, Glenurus gratus. You can see more images on BugGuide which states: “Larvae reported to live in cavities such as tree holes (among sawdust) and in burrows of Gopher Tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, a threatened species.“ THANK YOU! That was driving me nuts. -shane.
Letter 7 – Antlion
Winged bug June 24, 2010 This bug was clinging to the wall where I work (in Reno, Nevada), and although I’m really not a bug person myself I’m curious to know what sort of flying insect this is. sistercoyote Reno, NV Dear Sistercoyote, Now that we have answered your question, perhaps you will be curious enough to look into the interesting life of your Antlion. The larvae are known as Doodlebugs.
Letter 8 – Antlion
Clear with blue tipped wings moth? July 14, 2010 Dear Bugman – I walked onto my deck to clean it and saw this moth (?) sitting on the roof underhang. It was perfectly still and didn’t move even as I was mere inches from it. It is approximately 3-4 inches long and only about 1-2 inches wide. It has a very long narry body, Its wings were clear / see-through, except for the tips, which were a beautiful periwinkle blue. Curious in Arkansas Bella Vista, AR Dear Curious, This is probably North America’s most beautiful and distinctive Antlion, Glenurus gratus, a species that is profiled on BugGuide.
Letter 9 – Antlion
Flying Front Porch Guest Location: Orlando, FL September 3, 2010 10:29 am I searched all different kinds of moths and flying insects and cannot find a match to this beast. It’s approximately 2.5-3” from tip to tip. Signature: Alistair Hi Alistair, Though we have numerous images of Antlions on our website, we believe your individual is a new species for us, and it appears to be Vella americana based on photos posted to BugGuide.
Letter 10 – Antlion
Bug with fork head Location: Southwest Florida September 25, 2010 4:04 pm I live in Southwest Florida. I found this bug on my porch, but I can’t seem to find anything on the internet about it. It is long like a dragonfly with clear wings and its head looks like it has a dinner fork attached to it. I’m just curious what it is. Signature: Gaston Hi Gaston, This sure looks like the silhouette of an Antlion to us.
Letter 11 – Antlion
whats this one? November 7, 2010 Found this lovely damselfly look-alike fluttering around our porch light one late summer evening, quite late actually around 11pm. we’re in Powell river on the lower coast of bc. i ‘ve never seen a bug like this before ,ever.. curiouser and curiouser… noni stremming Hi Noni, This is an Antlion and they are frequently mistaken for Damselflies. The larvae are called Doodlebugs and you can read more about Antlions on BugGuide.
Letter 12 – Antlion
Possibly a Dobsonfly Location: North Middle Tennessee June 3, 2011 7:45 pm Hi Daniel This (lady?)stopped for a short visit just now. It looks like a ”Dobsonfly” to me without the large mandibles they are noted for,(maybe just the camera angle) I’m now confused. (Again) Thank you for your help and website. Everyone have a great day. Signature: Richard Possibly a Dobsonfly.. UPDATE!! Hi Daniel, I’m sorry to bother you again but thought I might save you some time, I believe I now have an ID of my insect. After searching the internet I belive it is an ” Adult Antlion” I have seen “doodlebugs” all of my life but this is the first adult I’ve noticed. ThankYou for all you do. Richard. Hi Richard, We apologize for the delay, but we know that searching the internet and finding a correct answer can be very rewarding. You are correct. We were going to respond to you this morning upon posting your photo which we still plan to do. Insect metamorphosis can be very drastic, and you must be marveling at finally seeing the adult imago of a familiar childhood insect.
Letter 13 – Antlion
Antlion in Austin Location: Austin, Texas June 20, 2011 3:49 pm Hi Bugman! You’ve answered my questions in the past, and it was so easy to find what this little guy was with just a few clicks on your site. My 9-yr-old was just SURE we had discovered a new specimen of bug, and insisted I take a pic as we hurried out the door to school. I’ll submit the pic, just in case you think it is worthy of posting…but he’s a pretty bland-colored guy. Maybe of the ”non-fancy” genus? 🙂 Signature: Courtney Cavness Hi Courtney, We are thrilled to post your photo of an Antlion which we find to be anything but bland, and we are also thrilled to hear that you were able to self identify it so easily.
Letter 14 – Antlion
Dragonfly looking bug Location: Beaver, OH August 20, 2011 9:00 pm Found this bug on a picnic table in Ohio. I’m not sure what it is but it looks like a dragonfly. Signature: Conorr Hi Conorr, Though it superficially resembles a Dragonfly, the Antlion is not even closely related. Your species is Glenurus gratus.
Letter 15 – Antlion
Florida Bug Location: Central Florida (Northeast Polk county) September 12, 2011 6:34 am This picture was taken on Sept. 11, 2011, in Central Florida (Northeast Polk county). Our best guess is a fishfly. Signature: John Corn in Central Florida Hi John, This is actually an Antlion and we believe the species may be Vella americana based on images posted to BugGuide. Additionally, BugGuide has a very nice quick description on the Myrmeleontidae (Antlion family) page that explains the visual differences between Antlions and Fishflies, as well as Dobsonflies and Owlflies.
Letter 16 – Antlion
interesting insect Location: St Hedwig, TX November 11, 2011 12:38 pm During a shed building project this appeared. It was mid-August and the middle of a drought with temps hitting 100+ every day. It alighted on a telephone pole we had just set as a corner post. The creosote apparently didn’t bother it. It was about 2.5 in or so long. What is it? We’re outside San Antonio, TX in a farming community. Signature: Joy Dear Joy, This magnificent creature is an adult Antlion in the genus Vella which we identified on BugGuide. We aren’t certain of the species and both similar looking species represented on BugGuide are found in Texas. Many folks are familiar with the larvae of Antlions which are commonly called Doodlebugs.