Have you ever walked by a cone-shaped indentation in the soil and wondered what it was? I always believed those artful little craters were caused by industrious squirrels. It turns out, those are antlion pits! Antlions are also called ‘doodle bugs’ because of another art form they create, that being squiggle-like marks they formulate on the ground.
Antlions are in the family group called Myrmeleontidae in the order Neuroptera. Okay, this esoterica is just another way to say that these critters live their lives in metamorphosis with life stages consisting of egg, larva, pupa, and adult. You may have seen the 0.8 to 5.9-inch antlion adult with its two pairs of transparent wings that resemble their cousins, the lacewings. Some say they also resemble dragonflies or damselflies.
This little-studied, but interesting critter gets around, with nearly 2,000 species of antlion found around the world. According to Stokes Guide to Observing Insect Lives, antlions are easier to find in their larval stage than in adult form. First, look for the pit they have created right after they hatched, in fine-grained soil. The pit was formed when the larva backed itself around in a spiral, ending up in the center of the pit. After that, it buries itself and waits for prey at the center of the pit!
Credit: Kathleen Scavone
Next, when an unlucky ant or other unsuspecting creature happens to venture into the pit, it will get stuck, as the inverted angle of repose causes a mini-landslide, thereby capturing the prey. The antlion larva may even flip additional dirt on top of the prey to ensure that the ensuing feast is sufficiently incarcerated.
Now, like a horror film, the larva grabs the meal with its pincers, that also serve the purpose of paralyzing the prey and, getting down and dirty, begins to feed on the unlucky insect, finally tossing the empty skeleton away from the pit like a king who just feasted on wild boar! Stokes’ book goes on to explain that you may tickle the antlion pit with a small stick or blade of grass to fake the actions of its prey in order to see the antlion emerge when it may try to grab your stick.
Since learning about antlions and their art forms, I seem to see their pits and squiggles everywhere. On walks by a creek in the sand, taking a walk at Rodman Preserve and at the Middletown Trailside Park. I’m guessing it’s the antlion that has inspired many a sci-fi horror creature for the movies or video games since the antlion has looks that only a mother could love! Now that’s the pits! Cute or ugly, this rocky-skinned planet on which we live depends upon one ecosystem meeting another in all of its unique and mystifying forms.