By Hazel Shinholt, Abbott’s Mill Nature Center Teacher/Naturalist
Warm weather is upon us and we see all kinds of insects scurrying about at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center. One of the insects you may have walked right by (maybe even walked on) and never noticed is the antlion. Antlions are in the family Myrmeleontidae and order Neuroptera. They undergo complete metamorphosis. The larvae look nothing like the adult. The adults have wings and can look similar to a damselfly. The most noticeable differences are that the antlion has longer antennae that are clubbed at the end and the vein pattern in their wings is different from the damselfly. The adult antlion is nocturnal but the larval stage is very active during the day.
It is larval stage of the antlion that I find most fascinating! Antlion larvae are ominous looking creatures. They are gray/brown in color, with an oval shaped body covered in bristles, have short legs and large mandibles. We have many near our meadow habitat at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center.
Antlion larvae dig a cone-shaped “pit” in loose sandy or dry soil (look for soil that looks like a rain drop hit it and left a cone-shaped impression in the soil). The antlion buries itself in the bottom of the pit and waits for its next meal to arrive. Only part of its head is visible at the bottom of the pit. When an ant or other small insect crawls near the edge of the trap, the loose soil gives way and the prey falls into the “pit of death.” When the prey reaches the bottom, the antlion then grabs the prey with its strong mandibles and drags it under the soil. It pierces the prey and feasts on the body fluid of the prey. The antlion has no use for the carcass of the prey and flicks it out of the pit and the cycle begins again.