Remember those days in second grade when you made your construction paper lion and your lamb with cotton balls glued all over it? While there hasn’t been a lot of snow or ice this winter here, these last few days have certainly been windy enough to sound like a hoard of lions. So let’s chat about antlions! Of course with a name like “antlion”, it is obviously not an ant and not a lion. But that would be kinda cool….
So an antlion is like a miniature sarlacc. You know, that carnivorous sand pit creature from Star Wars? That almost ate the intrepid heros as they are battling Jabba the Hutt? Now imagine that monstrosity smaller, cuter, and beneficial. You’ve got an antlion. It is actually a whole family of insects (Myrmeleontidae). That name is rooted in greek: leon (lion) and myrmex (ant). The common name also refers to the fact that they eat a large number of ants over their larval life stages.
Antlions have complete development so females looks for a nice spot (sandy, but not too
sandy; soft, but not too soft…) and she uses her ovipositor to probe the egg down into the substrate. Once the egg hatches, the new larvae digs a pit and secretes itself in the middle of the pit, just below the sand. Like a lion waiting for it’s prey to get close enough, the antlion waits at the bottom of it’s pit until some hapless insect, usually an ant, stumbles into the pit of death! Since there is no guarantee how often this might happen, many species can take a few years to develop, and can survive long periods without food. When the little sand demons have gotten enough food, they are ready to pupate. They spin a silken cocoon embedded with particles of sand that forms a protective little shell around the pupae. The pupal stage lasts for about a month, then the adult emerges, spreads it’s wings and starts the process all over again.
The larvae really are voracious little predators. While ants are the majority of their prey, they will feed on any small arthropod that is unfortunate enough to fall into their death trap. They have long jaw-like mouthparts that grasp the prey, inject venom, then suck up the juices. I was in Costa Rica a few years ago and beneath our cabin there were tons of their little pits. I would occasionally throw a small insect near the pits to watch them grasp it faster than I could see and make it disappear beneath the sand. They are considered beneficial insects due to their predatory tendencies.
Adults are most similar to lacewings; they have a long thin body and four heavily veined
wings that are held against the body when resting. They can sometimes be confused with damselflies. They are not often seen because they are most active in the evening. Despite the fact that there are around 2,000 species worldwide (most species in the tropics), little scientific research has been done on this family.
So roar into this month with some entomological (ant)lions! Be a king of the jungle by passing on this entomological awesomeness! Part of the mane event is liking this post! Given enough time, I could probably come up with more bad puns, but I will sign off now… because it’s been a roaring good time.