Have you noticed the sand traps? And I am not talking about the ones on the golf course. These are much smaller and won’t get your attention unless you look for them.
Watch for cavities dug in the soil, shaped like snow cones, but one quarter to one half the size. They tend to be in clean, bare sand, especially in protected areas against walls and buildings.
The nickname “doodlebug” doesn’t sound very ferocious, does it? It supposedly comes from the meandering, “doodling,” trails made as the creatures dig, moving backwards through the sand. Their actual name, though, is Myrmeleontidae, a combination of the Greek words for ant and lion. And the antlion certainly lives up to its name.
An online search for “antlion” will deliver, in addition to many articles, several videos, some with labels like “cold-blooded killer” (Smithsonian Channel) and “death trap” (BBC Earth). These videos are short and are definitely worth the few minutes it takes to watch them.
An adult antlion is an elegant, winged insect resembling a dragonfly. In fact, they are sometimes referred to as antlion lacewings. But as larvae, antlions are fearsome exterminators of ants and other small critters. They have no wings, grow to about one-half inch in length and resemble large, sand-colored ticks with bristled bodies and oversized heads with pincers. The pincers grasp prey and allow for the injection of venom and digestive juices after the prey is snatched suddenly underground.
If being abruptly jerked into the earth isn’t dramatic enough, the fast-acting digestive enzymes liquify the softer parts of the prey’s insides. These are then sucked out, and the carcass, which is no longer of use, is flung into the air and left to whatever creatures might want to eat the antlion’s leftovers.
As children, my friends and I used to drop ants into antlion cones. The antlion is extremely sensitive to vibrations in its lair and usually responds quickly.
The sand “explosions” from below were both startling and fascinating. Without too much effort, an entire hole can also be scooped up and sifted and its creator isolated and observed. Antlions don’t generally bite humans, even if held in an open palm, but one expert did tell of an instance where one, which may have felt trapped, bit him on the soft, outer side of his hand. The sensation was reportedly similar to an ant bite.
What perplexing creatures these antlions are. If they were bigger, as larvae, they would give us nightmares. But from these horrifying “snatch predators,” which may live several years on and under the ground, come beautiful, flying lacewings that only live long enough to mate and reproduce (a few weeks), and are vegetarians. They are mostly nocturnal and prefer foods like pollen and nectar to the animals they once sought. The antlion truly defines changing directions in life and is another example of the magical, complex world that surrounds us every day.