Most people who have heard of antlions think immediately of little sandy pits with jaws lurking at the bottom of them. As we saw in a previous post, those jaws are attached to a fairly monstrous looking little critter. But this is just the antlion in its baby form. Very few people would connect the juvenile to the fluttery damselfly-like adult seen in the picture above.
Antlions, like lacewings, belong to the order Neuroptera (literally “nerve-winged”) so named for the intricate venation of the wings of the adults. Also like lacewings, both the larvae and the adults are predatory, albeit with very different strategies. Lacewings are primarily nocturnal, and somewhat weak, fluttery fliers–a trait very different from the fleet agile damselflies they resemble. However both are ferocious predators in the insect world, despite their delicate appearance.
Lacewings can be distinguished from damsel and dragonflies by several characteristics. Their petal-like wings lack a “nodus” or kink at the top margin that is present in both damsel and dragonflies. A simpler trait for the layperson is the presence of prominent clubbed antennae. Damsel and dragonflies have very small, hardly noticeable antennae, whereas owlflies (a close relative of the antlion) have antennae longer than the length of their body.
Like other neuropterans, antlion larvae have large specialized sucking jaws, which they lose in their adult for for more typical mandibles (compare the above and below pictures).
Appropriately, one of the two antlions I was rearing emerged over the weekend so I snapped a photo for you below. This guys’ a local Texan, the adult of the fellow in the pit above:
Antlions actually make interesting pets. They can be kept in a dish of deep sand and the only upkeep they require is an ant or other small insect dropped in once or twice a day. It’s fun to watch their pit building behavior, and you can even keep a few in a large dish and watch them establish territories. Eventually, they will pupate, weaving their cocoon underground and forming a small ball of sand around themselves. At this point a perch and a cover of some sort (I used plastic wrap tented over a stick) are necessary to trap the emerging adult and allow it to inflate and dry its wings properly.