Small Dirt Craters: Worms or Antlions?

Many people first think they have a worm infestation when tiny craters begin to appear in the dirt. These might develop in any covered spot. Sprays don’t seem to help, and some report that the “worms” actually spit granule treatments out of their holes. Flattening the mounds doesn’t work, either, as they simply return the next day.

Are these worms? Probably not. They’re signs of antlions, more fondly called “doodlebugs.” These are indeed among the most fascinating creatures in the insect world. Young children often find doodlebug behaviors very entertaining, especially their methods for trapping food.

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In the adult phase, doodlebugs are similar to dragonflies. They are in the same family as damselflies. Their more common name is due to the random, weaving trails in loose soil that look like doodles.

The larval stage can last as long as three years. During this time, doodlebugs are masters of invention. Once they settle on a spot, the larvae begin by burrowing backwards in a circular motion, using their heads to toss dirt outward. When finished, the antlions lie submerged in the center with only pincer-like jaws and part of their heads protruding.

The raised pits are circular and sloped at a perfect angle. Once a potential meal – usually an ant – crests the top of the pit, it slides neatly into the trap. At that point, the doodlebug’s huge mandibles pierce the victim’s outer skeleton and sucks out the tasty insides. The prey has little chance of escape, even if it survives the first round of attack. Attempts to crawl up the slope prompt the doodlebug to kick up a shower of sand or soil, causing a landslide. When the ant carcass is drained, it is booted out of the pit.

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If you want to see a doodlebug in action, just grab a piece of grass and gently poke it into the middle of a crater. A tiny pebble will also do the trick. That’s one reason kids love observing doodlebugs so much as the larva will vigorously kick unwanted objects out of its pit.

Antlions prefer covered areas to build their traps, but are not too particular about the type of soil. They’re found in barns, beneath overhangs or in any shady spot that protects them from rain. They are often more prevalent spring through summer and can be abundant in dry weather. Their small bodies are not worm-like at all. In the larval stage, they look like odd beetles with smallish flat heads and the oversized front mandibles, or jaws. Doodlebugs are capable of biting and injecting a mild poison if handled. The injection is not dangerous, but can produce a sting.

Over the course of several weeks, antlions continue to grow. At the same time, they create out larger pits, always conscious of leaving adequate space for their larval neighbors. They then pupate, emerge as adults, mate and begin the cycle once again.

Antlions cause no damage to their surroundings and actually perform a great service by reducing the ant population. They also feed on other insect pests that are unfortunate enough to fall into their traps.

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