Wildlife Exploration: Hunting for Antlions

Antlion investigateWhenever 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 the larval stage of the adult in the family Myrmeleontidae.  When antlions become adults they resemble damsel flies (or miniature dragon flies), 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. Best of all, you can hold them!

They hang out in many backyards, tucked quietly in 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.

Part on antlion doodlebug

  • 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.antlion closeup
  •  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.antlion pits
  • 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.

antlion trap


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.

 Did you know about Antlions?

Want to learn more? Why not learn an antlions prey and participate in an Ant Investigation.

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  1. kirri says

    I now know what an antlion is!! I have come across but thought they were some kind of mutant roach.
    Im still not touching one though :)

  2. Susan Stephenson says

    Because lots of school have demountable classrooms, I’ve never had any problem finding ant lions. They’re truly fascinating. I just love that pit and how it works!

    • pawhitehouse says

      Hooray, I was worried I wouldn’t find anyone who knew about them. I’m so glad you do. Is it silly that I think they’re cute?

  3. pawhitehouse says

    Kate, they generally like warmer climates but can be found in cold regions too. You would be more likey to find them in summer though.

  4. Luke says

    I remember as a kid i was hunting everything! I was organizing fights between every possible type of insect…and those poor ants…damn kids are cruel!

    Can a person go to jail for insects cruelty ? (:O)

    • pawhitehouse says

      I know what you mean!

      Although as a child I loved wildlife, I was occasionally caught in the act of catching flies and chucking them into a spider web just to watch, memorised, while the spider restrained their captive for future feeding! I take a little bit of comfort from the fact that insects don’t have a backbone and are thought not to feel pain.

      I have also been on the other end of the scale where I saved many a ghost nipper from becoming fish bait while my Dad and Brother went yabby hunting!

      I think it’s natural for children to be curious about wildlife and that may mean that they don’t always think about the cruelty of the situation.

  5. MD says

    Antlions are NOT the larval form of a damselfly. The adult antlions RESEMBLE damselflies, however are in a completely different insect order. Just saying.

    • pawhitehouse says

      Hi MD, Thanks you so much for pointing this out. I was sure I had reserached it well at the time of writing but I must have read incorrect information. I have changed the details now and will write a better explanation of the Antlion by finding more reseached material. Thank you again.

  6. says

    Very interesting. Like Kate I’m unsure if we have them here… we DO have lots of holes like this all through our yard. I thought they could be from cicadas?? Or funnel webs!! Eeek! Maybe you can enlighten me… :)

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