Antlions: The Real Life Sarlacc
Unless you’re a real seasoned gardener or an entomologist, you may never have heard of the “antlion,” but this sometimes-big sometimes-small garden warrior is worth knowing.
By the end, you’ll be thankful that they call your garden “home.” Let’s dig right in.
What Are Antlions?
Is it a dragonfly?
Is it a lacewing?
No, it’s an antlion!
“Antlions” (or ant lions) is the collective name for a group of insects belonging to the Myrmeleontidae family that is around 2,000 strong. These critters are found worldwide, from Australia to South Africa and all spots on the map in between.
In the United States, they are found in abundance in Florida–with 22 species calling the area home–as well as Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, and New Jersey.
If you HAVEN’T heard of antlions before, I’ll bet you’ve heard of their larvae: the doodlebug! (Yes, it’s actually a real thing, not just an alternative term for “thingamajig”!) It does not look as warm and cuddly as its name may imply, though they are relatively small. (Click here to see a photo of one!)
There are two main reasons why you may have heard of doodlebugs but not antlions:
- adult antlions have rather odd lifespans, and they’re hardly ever seen once they reach adulthood
- they’re nocturnal.
How Long Do Antlions Live?
We mentioned that antlions have weird life cycles, and we meant it! There’s very little consistency. They spend 1 to 3 years of their lifespan as doodlebugs, before cocooning underground for about a month. Once they emerge from their cocoons as antlions, they’re known to survive for around 25 to 45 days.
Here is an adult antlion.
Fun fact for you–and there are more of these to come–nobody really knows where the term “antlion” came from. (But it is cool, isn’t it?)
The name “doodlebug” likely came about because of the strange, doodle-like patterns the larva leaves behind in sand and dirt. (They can also only walk backward!)
Where Do Antlions Live?
While antlions set up shop all over the planet, they’re particularly fond of warmer areas. They prefer living in dry and sandy regions so they can get to work building their pit traps.
There’s a strong chance that you may never know if you have antlions living in your garden. Depending on the specific species, a few telltale signs of antlion habitation are holes in the ground, pit traps in the sand, and the glimmer of moonlight on their delicate netted wings as they flutter around outside. (Good luck spotting that one.)
Can Antlions Bite? Are They Harmful?
Technically speaking, yes. Antlions can bite humans, but this only occurs when it feels threatened, cornered, or overly stressed. Even in such instances, the bite may sting for just a few minutes before disappearing entirely (though in rare cases with some species, it can cause radiating pain, according to this report).
Antlions aren’t known for being disease carriers and, despite their ability to bite, they aren’t known for doing so with any frequency.
In short: antlions are pretty much harmless to you, your family, your pets, your structures, and your flower beds. Leave them be and you’ll be fine. Antlions are pretty cool critters to have around.
The Benefits of Having Antlions in Your Garden
Adult antlions eat only pollen and nectar, but doodlebugs love nothing more than chowing down on ants, spiders, and other small insects. So, while they won’t eat whatever you’ve recently planted, they’ll eat whatever does want to!
Doodlebugs build intelligent “traps” or “pits” in sandy soil to ensnare their prey. The average-sized larva digs a pit about 2 in deep and 3 in wide. As it slowly moves round and round, the hole gradually gets deeper and deeper, until the slope angle reaches the steepest that the sand can maintain—where it is on the verge of collapse from slight disturbance, and the pit is solely lined by fine grains.
When the pit is complete, the larva settles down at the bottom, buried in the soil with only its impressive jaws projecting above the surface, often in a wide-opened position on either side of the very tip of the cone.
The steep-sloped trap that guides prey into the larva’s mouth—while avoiding crater avalanches—is one of the simplest and most efficient traps in the animal kingdom. The fine grain lining ensures that the avalanches which carry prey are as large as possible.
Slipping to the bottom, the prey is immediately seized by the lurking antlion larvae. If it attempts to scramble up the treacherous walls, it is speedily brought down by showers of loose sand.
In other words, doodlebugs–with their huge appetites and ferocious nature–keep your plants safe from invaders, while the adult antlions don’t really do anything.
Leave the adults be, and enjoy having the larvae around. You won’t need to worry about the health of your plants or flowers while they’re doing their thing!
3 Fascinating Facts About Antlions
Before we wrap up, here are four fascinating facts about antlions.
- In some parts of the world, antlions are used as fishing bait.
- According to popular regional folklore, if you recite a poem, chant, or initiate a conversation, the antlion can be lured out of its hole.
- Antlions are stars on screen! You can spot antlions, or characters inspired by them, in SimAnt, Final Fantasy, Terraria, Mother 3, Monster Rancher 2, and Half-Life 2. The fictional Sarlacc from Star Wars is considered to be based on the antlion. Antlions also inspire the evolution of Pokemon Trapinch, Vibrava, and Flygon.
Any garden would be lucky to home a few of these bad boys. They’re so popular that you can even purchase them online: to keep your garden in order, to occupy zen gardens, or keep you company as a very odd pet.
Todd Stebleton is the owner and operator of Universal Pest Control, a family-owned business for over 25 years in Ormond Beach, Florida. He and his wife Natalie are proud to have built a company focused on conducting business with honesty and integrity: keeping customers first, protecting the environment, and providing trustworthy, personal service.
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