An article about antlions in December? There are currently no antlions to be found, they are all hibernating, which they do in their larval stage. But yes, these pictures have been waiting for an article for a while now, and December is a month with few insects to photograph. So with a little background, you’ll have something to look forward to next spring.
Strictly speaking, the term “antlion” applies to the larval form of the members of this family, but while several languages have their own terms for the adult, there is no widely used word for them in English. Very rarely, the adults are called “antlion lacewings”
The scientific name of the spotted antlion is Euroleon nostras, which means “Our European Lion”. It is found throughout Europe, but rarely in Britain. With a name like that, it actually deserves a place on our Euro banknotes or coins.
These insects have a very interesting life-cycle. The larva lives in a sunny place in soft sand. This could be on the heath, under an overhanging bush, or next to your house under the eaves. The spot is always chose to be protected from rain, nice and sunny, and safe from grazing animals. This helps keep the sand funnel dry, and this is a matter of life and death for them, because it is how they trap their prey. When the larva emerges from the egg, it digs a hole by walking backwards in a circle. This forms a funnel-shaped depression in the sand of between 3 to 4 cm. It then buries itself in the bottom of this funnel, with only its eyes and jaws exposed.
As soon as an ant or other insect walks along the edge of the funnel, the antlion jumps into action. With his flat head, he throws grains of sand at the intended victim, knocking him off balance until he falls into the lion’s trap. Once in the trap, there is no escape, the antlion grabs its prey with powerful jaws and devours it. The empty shell of the victim is then tossed out of the funnel with a mighty fling.
After one or two years, depending on the abundance of food, the larva will pupate. It spins a cocoon about the size of a rabbit dropping. Grains of sand will stick to the still wet cocoon, adding strength and camouflage. The larva sheds its skin one more time inside the cocoon, and then becomes a pupa, a small miracle in itself.
After a few weeks, the adult emerges from the cocoon. This insect is as different from its larval stage as a butterfly is from a caterpillar. Indeed, while it looks more like a dragonfly, its not even in the same family. In an Italian nature magazine, one of my photos of adult antlion was used to illustrate an article about dragonflies!
1 and 2 – An antlion on the heath, and one next to my house
3 – The larva with its prey 4 and 5 – The adult insect 6 – The larva, briefly out of the sand for his portrait 7 – The cocoon 8 – The cocoon with the empty larva skin, after the adult emerged