A Tiny Predator of Summer


Ant Lions: The little predator that can thrive in a Texas drought.
Ant lions, or doodlebugs, are tiny predators that can easily withstand drought and heat. They are beneficial for the environment. Drawing Courtesy of FWNC&R Staff.

This summer brought record-breaking heat that news broadcasters described as brutal, horrible, and unbearable. The weather conditions and extended periods without rain took a toll on plants and wildlife. Even the usual summer chorus of cicadas at the Refuge seemed quieter this year. Despite the challenges, one tiny creature thrived in the heat. The ant lion, also known as the doodlebug, completed its life cycle and continued living in its pit, catching and devouring innocent passersby underground.

While many people are familiar with ant lions, they might not know that they are the juvenile form of a different-looking insect. These larvae are placed by their mothers as eggs in the sand and may remain in a larval stage for months while they collect nutrients and conserve energy. They are well-suited to living in hot, dry environments and can survive for extended periods without food or water. Once they have enough nourishment, they spin silk cocoons in the sand and transform into pupae for approximately a month. When they emerge from the cocoon, they are fragile, winged nocturnal adults that feed on nectar and pollen. They resemble damselflies and have an elongated body and clubbed or curved antennae roughly the same length as their head and thorax.

As a larva, the ant lion has a plump body covered in bristles, with large jaws for catching ants (its preferred food) and other crawling insects. It’s fascinating to watch an ant lion construct its funnel-shaped home. To begin the process, the ant lion walks backward and uses its broad, flattened abdomen to press into the soil, creating a winding or spiral trail (commonly referred to as a “doodlebug”) in the sand. Using its head and long mandibles, the ant lion continues to dig deeper and deeper until it reaches the bottom of the funnel-shaped crater. The ant lion then waits with its long, slender jaws wide open for prey. When a hapless ant walks across the sandy surface, it slips into the pit and tries to climb back out. However, the carefully balanced grains of sand on the pit’s sides slide to the bottom, bringing the ant closer to the open “jaws of doom.”

Did you know that doodlebugs are beneficial for the environment? As larval predators, they help balance the crawling insect communities. Doodlebugs are genuinely fascinating. It’s worth observing and appreciating them, especially during the summer when other creatures may seem less active due to the heat. And the best part? Doodlebugs are entirely harmless!

By Laura Veloz, Naturalist, Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge

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