For my introductory entomology class, it is useful for students to observe insects in nature. Students who have an experience with the insects I discuss in class find it easier to relate. Enter “Bugwalk”, a walk in the park on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. This year, we had beautiful weather and observed insects from every major order. One of the star attractions is the antlions.

The antlions have taken up residence in the intersection of the brick walk. The sand is perfect habitat, the intersections are large enough to accommodate the antlion larvae and the brick walls provide protection and stability. There are plenty of ant nests nearby as sources of food. The antlions make conical pits that trap ants. The antlions lay in wait at the bottom of their pits.

A hapless ant that wanders into the pit will begin to slide down the steep slippery slope. If the ant gets some traction and starts to climb out, the antlion will detect the sand particles rolling to the bottom and flip sand at the ant, knocking it to the bottom of the pit where the antlion can grab it with its large jaws. A human observer only sees the pit and the tip of the jaws extruding from the bottom of the pit. When an ant reaches the bottom, we can see the jaws come up, grab the ant and the ant disappears under the sand. The antlion eats its dinner in its burrow.

On our most recent Bugwalk, one of my students took this video of an antlion and posted it to YouTube.

Many students said it reminded them of the Sandworm scene in Return of the Jedi. Art imitates life and science fiction writers often use insects as a source of material.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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6 Responses to Antlions

  1. Aubrie Wnek says:

    The ant lions were definitely one of my favorite things from the bug walk. When I went, we observed an antlion pull an ant under the sand, we were unable to see the actual antlion so seeing this video was really interesting! I had no idea how large its jaws were in relation to its body however it makes a lot of sense physiologically. Antlions are very interesting species and I hope to go back to where we found them and check them out again in the near future! Antlions make me wonder what other sort of insects live underground so to speak. It mentioned in this blog that they are protected from predators and have perfect habitat for larvae, it would make sense evolutionarily speaking that more insects would try to inhabit underground lifestyles, although I can’t imagine it would be too much fun living underground all the time. I also wonder how these antlions mate. They seem to live in isolation from one another so do they have to emerge from their underground homes and mate above ground? Do they use indirect copulation?

  2. jjneallwi says:

    The antlion in the video is a larva. Antlions have complete metamorphosis. The larva will make a pupa and then emerge as an adult with wings. The adults are mobile, capable of dispersing and have internal fertilization.

  3. Amelia Hitchcock says:

    Seeing the antlion made my day on the bug walk. It really was reminiscent the Pit of Sarlacc in Return of the Jedi. I think it’s really interesting that they’re known for the pupa stage and rather unremarkable as adults (I guess they look like dragonflies?). Do the adults still eat ants? This form of hunting makes me wonder about other types of predators too. What other insects in our area use deceptive traps like this?

  4. jjneallwi says:

    It has been suggested that Ceti eels in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan were modeled after antlions. The adults typically feed on pollen and nectar, not ants.

  5. Pingback: Utah Antlions | Living With Insects Blog

  6. Tyler King says:

    The antlion made the bug walk worthwhile, and was a very surprising to see an ant disappear inside the antlions den. When i first saw how the antlion catches its prey, it also remided me of the Pit of Sarlacc from Star Wars. It is also interesting to note that the giant walkers resembles a sauropod and many of the flying vehicles resemble dinosaurs and insects also.

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