One of the greatest joys of my childhood involved antlions. I spent countless hours in the shed with its sandy floor teasing these little predators. Their conical traps begged to be explored, an ant nabbed and fed to the waiting jaws at the bottom of the pit.
I recently revisited the world of the antlion after a young bloke asked me about them on a game drive. A new world was opened into the life of one of the most prolific predators in the insect world.
“So”; you may ask “what is an antlion?”
Well, it is a small soft-bodied insect of the Order Neuoptera, including antlions, lacewings, ascalaphids and aphid wolves. Mostly carnivorous, these insects are masters at setting traps for their prey. The antlion family specifically consists of over 2000 species, found everywhere but the Arctic.
Have a look at the first video included in this blog. That dear friend is an antlion. Rather uninspiring. Look a bit closer, and you will notice that, apart from walking backwards, it has great big pincers.
The second part of the video illustrates their ingenious traps and their ‘doodles’. This is where they get their alternative name of ‘doodlebugs’; although I have only heard this name used by our American friends. The doodles are made when, for some reason, the antlion needs to get to a new home, usually because of a carcass fouled trap or the call of a waiting female. The antlion will move, mostly at night, by reversing through the sand just below the surface. The tell-tale doodles are used to age tracks when on the spoor of big game.
The third part of the video shows the trap itself. It is a marvel of engineering.
The conical trap is made from the loose sand. The antlion will oscillate and flick sand into a trap. The sand, depending on the specific viscosity of the soil, is balanced at the precise threshold where and hapless insect will slip back into the bottom of the pit as it attempts to get out. This is where the antlion gets its name. At feeling the vibration of potential prey, the antlion will grab upward with its impressive mandibles whilst causing a landslide of sand by kicking back with its body. Prey is typically decapitated by breaking the neck from the carapace.
After a few months in this form, the antlion feels the ‘need’ to pupate. It will dig down in the soil and emerge as the most delicate of creatures.
The adult antlion is all but fearsome. It looks like a very finely made dragonfly with iridescent wings and a long, lithe body. Their flight is erratic and weak.
Sometimes, at a mass hatch of adult antlions, the bush will come alive with these beautiful creatures. They resemble a collection of fairies, dancing through the undergrowth on delicate wings. It is in this phase, that lasts only a few days or in some cases weeks, that new eggs are produced to ensure the next generation of these fascinating creatures.
Through my research into the world of antlions, I have come across masses of information on their breeding biology, species-specific behaviour and then there are my own observations as well. I could not extend this blog to include all of it!
If, like me, you have an inquisitive mind, spare a little time to spend on your knees, in the dust, looking into the life of an antlion. You are sure to come away amazed.