Antlions are commonly known as doodlebugs

Courtesy of Steve Roark

My uncle, Cas Newton Day, remained a kid at heart to his last days. I loved him for it, for I think (and hope) a little of it rubbed off on me.

To illustrate, he and I, both grown adults, were helping hang tobacco in a barn that had very dusty soil in front of the doors. We noticed funnel-shaped indentions in the soil, so he suddenly got down on his hands and knees, put his mouth near one of the indentions and yells “Doodlebug, doodlebug, house on fire!”

After I got over my fit of laughter he pointed to the hole and upon close inspection I saw that a small bug had surfaced at the bottom of the hole and was squirming around fit to bust. He had called up what I now know was an antlion, but to generations of youth before me were called doodlebugs, and it was a common fun activity to yell at them in this manner so that the sound vibrations would disturb them and make them surface from their lair.

Antlions (Myrmeleon immaculatus) are insects that as adults look like a damsel fly, with four veiny, transparent wings and a long skinny body. It’s the larval stage of the creature that the kids had fun with, looking like small gray-brown ovals with a head that has really big pincer-like jaws.

They dig the funnel-like pit in loose, fine dirt and lie in wait at the bottom, covered with dust. Small insects, especially ants, enter the pit unaware, and slip and slide on the very loose surface towards the bottom. The antlion may encourage their tumble by throwing sand at them. Once the ant gets to the bottom of the pit it gets grabbed and held by those big pincer jaws and it’s done for. The jaws are hollow like syringes and the prey’s body juices are sucked out though them.

The life of an antlion goes like this.

After one to three years, the doodlebug larvae weave a globular sand-covered silk cocoon about the size of a pea. Through the miracle of metamorphosis they emerge as winged adults, who fly around seeking a mate.

Mating is and aerobatic affair where the female hangs from a branch while the male attaches his rear abdomen to hers and hangs suspended below her. Mating takes around two hours, after which the exhausted male leaves. After a while the female inserts her abdomen in some appropriate loose, warm dirt and lays around 20 eggs. Adults live around 25 days, and don’t eat.

The larvae hatch out, dig pits, and life goes on. Ironically, because adults often emerge and lay eggs in the sand near active larvae pits, they may occasionally be captured and eaten by their younger relatives.

Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.

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