What Do Antlions Eat? All You Need To Know About Their Diet

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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.

What Do Antlions Eat
Antlion: Glenurus gratus

Antlions: Overview

Antlions are insects belonging to the family Myrmeleontidae. They are known for their unique predatory behavior, especially during their larval stage.

Physical Appearance

  • 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.

Lifecycle

  • 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.
Doodlebug

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.

Doodlebug

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.

Adult Antlions

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

Authors

  • 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.

    View all posts
  • 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.

    View all posts
Tags: Antlion

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • I first saw one of these guys underneath a small carousel outside of a walmart, his wings were opaque though, and it took me a good minute to tell myself that it wasn’t something alien. I just couldn’t imagine how I’d gone through 20 years of life without noticing something that big.

    Reply
  • The best way to distinguish an antlion or lacewing (Neuroptera) from a dragonfly or damselfly (Odonata) is the presence (lack of) long antenae. Neuropterans generally have longer, more visible antennae, often with clubbed tips. The antennae on dragon and damselflies is much less conspicuous.

    Reply
  • I didn’t realize clicking on a photo on this site would enlarge it…very cool.

    Reply
    • Yes, we need to find a way to better publicize that feature which thrills us to no end as we like the photos to be as large as possible, however, larger images makes for a page that takes much longer to load. We try to be sensitive to our readers who still have dial-up internet access.

      Reply
  • This can be further noted as the species Vella americana. As a point of correction, though, the larvae of this genus are not the same as doodlebugs. That name technically only applies to a single genus, Myrmeleon, as none of the others build put traps (instead, they’re active, hunting predators).

    Reply

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