If you have been spending more time outdoors lately, hopefully you are noticing the remarkable creatures right in your own backyard. Have you come across any lions yet?
Ant lions are voracious, horrifyingly efficient killers lurking throughout our neighborhoods, but thankfully their diminutive size renders them harmless to humans. For ants or other small insects however, an ant lion pit is a den of doom.
Well-outfitted larvae rest at the base of a conical depression created in loose, dry sandy soils. Look for their circular pits in any area sheltered from rain or sprinklers such as under roof overhangs, porch or pool decks.
A patient observer may take a pine needle or other fine item to tickle the edges of the pit. As the small grains of sand tumble into the center, the ant lion will begin tossing the sand back up, out of the depression. This action helps to ensure that unwitting prey cannot climb back out once it falls into the pit. Waiting at the base of this carefully controlled trap, the larvae will reach up and grab any hapless insect which tumbles down the sloping sides.
Prey is immediately pierced by deadly jaws and digestive fluids are pumped into the insect. Rendered into a nicely packaged “bug-smoothie,” the ant lion quickly sucks out the liquefied tissues then tosses the empty husk of the exoskeleton out of the pit.
Florida can boast 22 of the 90 species of ant lions found in the United States. Some species create these remarkable pits while others simply lie under the sandy surface ready to spring to action when prey bumbles by. Often referred to by the common name of doodle bugs, you may remember playing with them as children. At times you will also see little squiggly trails- much like a doodle by a pencil on a page- in sands nearby pits.
As with much of our insect world, adult ant lions point to spectacular transformation and a life unlike that lived before. These large, lacey-winged beauties may remind you of a dragon or damselfly. Nocturnal in their flight, it is rare to see them but if you watch outside at porch lights you might get lucky every now and then.
The adult’s large, prismatic eyes and iridescent wings are quite stunning as is their size. What an incredible difference from their humble beginnings as a lowly bug deep in a pit of sand. Enjoy the exciting world of nature around you or simply appreciate their activities as you go about yours knowing that nature is keeping a balance right under our feet.