Dateline: June 13, 2014*
Quite a mouthful. Antlions and owlflies may be a tad easier to say for the non-entomologists such as myself. They are members of the Insect suborder Myrmeleontiformia. Still not familiar? Ok, let’s put it in terms of their relatives that tend to get all the glory: Lacewings! Along with some additional allies, all are members of the Order Neuroptera.
Ok, enough with the scientific name mumbo jumbo. What the heck will they do to help me in my garden?
Antlion adults eat nectar and pollen and live for about 30-45 days. Some Antlion adult species also eat caterpillars and aphids.
Antlions as adults are a rather attractive flying insect which can easily be mistaken for a dragonfly in flight. The majority of Ant Lion species are nocturnal for the most part. Your best bet at seeing them in flight is at dusk or at artificial lights at night. The species shown in the photos can be seen up close and personal when they rest during the day. They try to blend in with plants…generally some dried stalk of taller grasses or, as shown here, comfy on a Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) frond. I inadvertently disturbed this fella and (s)he moved over to the green frond.
The ones pictured here are most likely Mymeleon spp. (Family Myrmeleontidae).
Antlions undergo complete metamorphosis. The female searches for a spot where she taps her abdomen and then inserts a single egg below ground. Several eggs may be laid in the same area, up to 20 eggs per site. As the eggs hatch, the larval stage is formed and this is likely the most beneficial stage.
The larval stage is commonly known as Doodlebugs, because in their quest to find just the right spot to build their pits, the bugs scurry around drawing “doodles” in the sand. The larvae build a funnel shaped pit and wait for an ant, termite or other insect to slip on the loose sand and fall in. As the prey slides over the edge and into the pit, the Doodlebug uses its jaws to paralyze the ant by injecting poison. Then it sucks out the vital juices. Once they finish their meal, they toss the skeletal remains out of the pit. Rather like spitting out a watermelon pit in order to eat the next bite.
The larval stage is a great way for children to observe and explore the world of insects. Antlions stay in the larval form for 1 to 3 years, followed by a cocoon stage made of sand and silk for about a month. Kids can replicate their habitat by using a container filled with sand, feeding the larvae ants and providing water droplets.
With 22 species found throughout Florida, there are plenty of these workhorses.
In addition to keeping some pest species in order, Antlion larvae serve as hosts to parasitic insects including wasps and flies. They also are eaten by birds that are alerted to their whereabouts by spying the pits created by the larvae.
Next up in the world of Myrmeleontiformia are Owlflies, members of the Ascalaphidae Family. The Owlfly I have encountered is in the Genus Ululodes.
Adult Owlflies are similar in appearance to Ant Lions, but they have longgggggggggggggg antenna. They try to blend in with plants by bending their abdomen out to emulate a stick or thin branch on dried out stalks of grasses. Take my word for it, they can be very convincing. The adults eat “on the wing”, similar to dragonflies.
Rather than laying eggs underground like the Ant Lion, they go high, laying eggs along the stalk of tall dried grasses. The larva has a similar appearance to the Ant Lion with scary looking mandibles. When the larva hatch they congregate briefly before heading down into the leaf litter or up into trees to chow down in a solitary fashion. They can be cannibalistic so they part ways with their siblings rather quickly. When they are fattened up, they build their cocoons in the leaf litter.
This brings up an important point. At all times of year it is imperative to leave some uncut debris as habitat to support these beneficial insects. If you clear away every last stalk of dried grasses, Owlflies have no place to lay their eggs. If you clear away all the leaf litter, they have no where to prey upon insects and no safe environment to form their cocoons.
I used to think that cutting down the dried native grass seedheads in spring while leaving the remains in a brush pile was adequate for use by the fauna. After all, the debris was available for the birds to pick up as building materials and any insects would still be there…like a centralized buffet. After seeing the habitat necessary for the Owlfly, I leave quite a bit of tall dead materials for them to use as support structures to lay their eggs. The resulting increase in the numbers of Owlflies at my place has proved quite rewarding.
*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 13, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.