Whenever I mention my childhood escapades of hunting for antlions, many people respond, “What? You hunted for a line of ants?” I’m always surprised at how many people don’t know about them.
So, you don’t know what an antlion is? Antlions are animals; in fact, they are the larvae stage of a damsel fly, and observing them is a great wildlife exploration activity for of all ages. Hunting for antlions can be fascinating and by taking the time to watch them you can learn what they eat, how they capture their prey and how they make their trap. But best of all, you can hold them.
They hang out in many backyards, tucked quietly into the dirt under some weather-aged stairs. If you’re not lucky enough to find their little inverted cone homes at your place, you can hunt for them anywhere you see fine-grained dirt, protection from the elements and most importantly, where there are lots of ants! Look under demountable buildings, under play equipment in a park or in undeveloped city lots. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see them almost everywhere.
What you can learn by observing antlions:
Parts of an antlion: To have a closer look at an antlion, blow gently on their cone trap. Keep blowing until you see the antlion at the base. Gently pick it up with your thumb and pointer finger (or scoop it up with a spoon) and place it in the palm of your hand. Put him on his back with his legs in the air. If you’re patient, the antlion will flip over and start to move around in a circle on your hand.
Holding an antlion is generally considered quite safe. Their mandible is usually too small to bite you, however, they are still an animal and they do have jaws so it’s important to be careful.
What an antlion eats and how they capture their prey: If you’re patient enough you may see an unsuspecting ant fall into an antlion pit (or if you’re not too sensitive, you could drop one in yourself). They predominately eat ants but will eat anything else they can capture in their trap, such as tiny crickets and other crawling insects. They wait patiently in the bottom of their inverted cone and ambush their prey. The pit holds their prey just long enough for their strong jaws to grasp the insect.
How do they make their cone trap? After you put the antlion back onto the ground, he will start digging his pit right in front of your eyes, and what an excavator he is, flicking giant dirt rocks out of his pit.
Equipment suggestions for hunting antlions:
A magnifying glass – not necessary but helpful to get a better view
A spoon to scoop them into your hand
A camera to document your hunting journey
Remember, Antlions live near ants and their nests so wear shoes to avoid getting bitten.
Don’t be scared off by the video below. To an ant, they’re an effective and lethal predator, but to us, they are harmless tiny creatures that young wildlife-rangers-to-be will love to study up-close. I grew up hunting for antlions with my Dad, a memory from my childhood I will always cherish, and I’m glad to be sharing it with you.