Sunday 31 March 2013


Image: Larah McElroy
Grrrr! Snarl! It's the Antlion! An insect who's infamy is matched only by its own murderous ingenuity. Yet it's just a baby and, like some emotionally damaged child actor, no-one cares about them once they reach adulthood.

Antlions are some 2,000 species in the family Myrmeleontidae. Myrme-leon-tidae. Myrme comes from the Greek for "ant", leon the Greek for "lion" and idae is what these family names always end in. Also there's a "t" in there. There's always time for a tea.

Image: Biopix, N Sloth
Myrmeleon formicarius: Larva - Nasty, brutish and short
The term "Antlion" seems to go back thousands of years, with lots and lots of European countries translating "ant" and "lion" into their own language and putting them together. Others have completely different names for it, including the Koreans who call it something that translates to Ant Demon.

Image: Stanislav Krejčík
Myrmeleon formicarius: Adult - Flimsy, fragile and long
Contrast that with the adult. English doesn't really have a word for it. Others call it things like "ant-damselfly" or "thin-winged mayfly", but no-one seems to take the bull by the horns and calls it "pansy" to its delicate, little face.

Image: zxgirl
Hanging out with a Green Lacewing at a net-winged family reunion
It's with the adult that you can see that Antlions are members of the order Neuroptera, the net-winged insects. It just happens they look a lot like a damselfly with long, curly antennae. Some of them at least feed on small arthropods, but others prefer pollen and nectar from flowers. I bet pansies are a favourite. They're not even trying to hide it.

But back to the Antlion - the REAL Antlion - the fearsome larva . Being larvae, they're basically babies and toddlers. We all know babies look just like Winston Churchill on a bad day and temper tantrums bear a striking resemblance to demonic possession, but the Antlion adds to this a malignant intellect and a sinister patience.

Image: Innovation_School
Some day, all this will be mine...
It begins with the hatching of an egg previously laid in sand. The wind blows cold, the birds cease their song and a tiny beast emerges from the dust.

Image: Bill & Mark Bell
It is utterly grotesque. The body? Plump, rotund, hunchbacked and grotesque. The head? Square, low-slung, tiny-eyed and grotesque. In between is a thin, mobile neck which provides the head with great manoeuvrability. Because that's more grotesque than the alternative.

Image: Biopix, N Sloth
Underside, showing the strange legs
The overall effect is oddly comical. The Antlion appears clumsy and oafish despite its six long legs. It lumbers across the sand, dragging its ponderous body along and carving out a trail behind it.

It is for this trail that the Americans, ever the optimist, call them Doodlebugs. Such a whimsical appellation perhaps displays an undue confidence, or else merely the cheerful enthusiasm in the face of certain death which we, the thinking ape, are forever doomed to sustain.

Image: graftedno1
It hurts even from here
For this baby has jaws. The sickle-shaped jaws are as long as the Antlion's head and truly savage in appearance. They also bear within them a hollow channel through which venom flows to be injected by the sharp points. It is clear: something, somewhere doesn't stand a chance against the Antlion. Ants, maybe?

Some Antlions are simple ambush predators. They hide in nooks and crannies and pounce on anything that passes by. Others put a little more thought in their method of capture and have discovered a far more torturous way of seizing their quarry.

It's the Antlion's sand pit. By walking backwards, they use that hefty abdomen of theirs to plough through the arid sand. They then use those long legs to push the displaced sand onto their large, square head and then, with a smart flick of the neck, the sand is cast out from the area. Every grotesque body part is put to work. The end result is grotesque, naturally.

Image: Clearly Ambiguous
The Sand Pit of Doom. Or as the Japanese call it, "ant-hell". The fact that it sounds like "anthill" and is the complete opposite in every possible way is probably just a morbid irony.

Here's how Ant Hell works:
  • Ant wanders around looking for food to share with her sisters back at the socialist utopia/dystopia, depending on how you look at it.
  • Ant investigates every nook and cranny. Finds one of them is a little slippery.
  • Ant isn't one for mathematics. She doesn't realise that she has blundered onto a slope that's at the critical angle of repose - at the slightest touch from her little ant-feet, sand immediately begins to cascade down into a pit, taking her with it.
  • "Repose" actually means "rest". Ant doesn't want to rest. She struggles and fights to escape, but the very ground beneath her falls away.
  • From the bottom of the pit, yet more loose sand is flicked at her, ensuring she has no chance of gaining a secure grip.
  • A large pair of mandibles grip her, pierce her exoskeleton and inject her with paralytic venom.
  • Mandibles drag her beneath the sand and suck out her internal fluids.
  • Ant begins to rest.
Once sucked dry, the empty husk is flicked out and away like a headful of refuse sand. The Antlion can now repair the deathtrap in preparation for the next victim.

Image: smccann
It's a terrible way to go. The Antlion is a true ogre in our midst. An ogre without an anus. As it happens. Antlions can live as larvae for several years and they store up all their waste products for this entire time. That's dedication if nothing else. Oh, and disgusting. It's also disgusting.

But, all good things must come to an end. And some bad things, too. Eventually, the Antlion delves deeper into the sand and spins a silk cocoon. It finally uses the bathroom after several years of holding it in and after about a month, an adult Antlion emerges in all its pansy glory.

Image: Larah McElroy
It may have a wingspan of anything between 2 and 15 cm (1 to 6 in), but its always significantly larger than its monstrous previous life. This is partly due to its thin exoskeleton; adult Antlions are are just incredibly delicate, a mere slip of a thing compared to their powerful, brutish young.

They're not strong fliers, but they can at least fly through the night in search of a mate to ensure a new generation of Ant Demons will build their pits of Ant Hell and continue the slaughter. And at least they have an anus, by God.


Unknown said...

Brilliant :D thank you for the introduction to the species, and as always for your highly entertaining writing style!

TexWisGirl said...

no, no i do not like the larvae! eek!

Esther said...

Antlion don't need an anus. Antlion don't care.

Joseph JG said...

@Unknown: Hey! Glad you enjoyed it!

@TexWisGirl: Be thankful for the little things, or at least that the larvae are really little!

@Esther: Yup! Far too busy filling up with more waste products by the tried and tested method of killing and eating.

BK said...

In Korean these things are literally called ant-demons. Their pits are called ant-hells.

Joseph JG said...

Wow... well, it isn't inaccurate!

Nicky said...

It’s 2am and I can’t sleep and I suddenly had the urge to find out what ant lions look like (as you do). I’ve never actually seen one but always imagined them as being a miniature lion/beetle hybrid lurking beneath the sand. So now I know. Thank you for entertaining and educating me during my insomnia.