By Jim Moore
In the animated comedy, “A Bugs Life”, the enemy of the ants were grasshoppers who demanded food tributes from the ants. In reality, the real ‘bug’ enemies of ants are Doodlebugs: ferocious and scary looking insect larvae with massive sickle-shaped mandibles, that eat the ants themselves!
The more appropriate name for these carnivores is ‘Antlions’; and this is what they are called in many languages throughout the world. The family name is ‘Myrmeleontidae’ which simply means Ant-lion!
Perhaps you have seen the cone shaped pits that these cunning larva build in loose soil or sand. The name doodlebug has been applied to these predators because of the doodle-like trails they make, which are most visible in open sandy areas. Up where I live the doodle-like trails are rarely seen under the conifer forest where their pits are often quite numerous in late summer and early autumn.
Hidden down under the sand or soil, at the bottom of the cone-shaped pit, the larva waits for its most common prey: ants! When an ant stumbles down into pit, the antlion larva seizes it with its large mandibles and pulls the ant down under the sand. If the antlion does not manage to seize the ant, and the ant tries to make a desperate escape out of the pit, the antlion will then flick sand upward with its mandibles, which causes the ant and the walls of the pit to cascade back downward to the once again waiting jaws of death. The ants rarely escape. Antlions are patient killers, and they are known to wait for months before their next ‘meal’ drops into their death trap!
Eventually, the antlion larva spins a silken cocoon, encrusted with soil or sand, within which one of the most amazing transformations takes place. What emerges is an adult antlion which is very unlike the fierce 11mm larva in size, behavior, and appearance.
The 40mm (1.5 inches) long winged adult antlion looks somewhat like a very fragile and delicate dragonfly. They are feeble flyers, and the most gentle of insects, incapable of biting anything. They are nocturnal and, may occasionally be seen at a porch light. In the bug wilds the real Antlion is both a lion and a lamb!
Of the 94 antlion species in the US only eleven species make pit traps; and these are all in the genus Myrmeleon.
An interesting project for both kids and parents, is to collect an antlion larva, and place it in a terrarium with plenty of fine sand. It will soon make its doodle-trails, and its pit. Then feed it one ant at a time, and be amazed!
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