What does a doodlebug, doodlebug do all day?

The ingenious pitfall traps that doodlebugs construct in soft sand allow them to ambush ants.

If you are of a certain age and grew up in Texas, chances are you have played with doodlebugs. Do you remember doodlebugs? I suspect that modern-day children are ignorant of doodlebugs. This is a shame. Doodlebugs are fascinating!

During the recent dry spell, every shady patch of soft sand on our farm was pockmarked with doodlebug craters. It reminded me of my childhood in the 1950s when we were under a prolonged drought. With no rain, the soil under the eaves of our houses became powdery: perfect doodlebug habitat. We kids entertained ourselves by “messing with” the doodlebugs’ pitfall traps.

We would run a straw around the edge of the conical depression that a doodlebug excavated. This would start a minor avalanche of sand grains down in to the pit. We would chant: “Doodlebug, Doodlebug, come out of your home; your house is on fire and your children are gone!” Usually the doodlebug at the bottom of the pit would begin throwing grains of sand back out of the depression. Of course, it was not the chant that caused the animal to react, but we didn’t know that. It was just a good way to while away a hot summer’s day!

Sometimes we would sift the sand and catch the doodlebug. It was an ugly, gray creature with big, sickle-like jaws. I guess it could have pinched us with those jaws, but it never did. I doubt it could have hurt us if it tried. Still, those curved, scissor-shaped mandibles looked formidable.

What exactly is a doodlebug? It is the larval form of an insect known as an antlion. It hunts ants primarily. The larva burrows into the tip of the inverted cone and hides itself with sand. Sometimes it sticks its opened jaws out of the sand. If an ant blunders into the pit, it tries to escape by crawling out. Since the pit walls are at the “critical angle of repose,” escape is usually impossible. At this angle, an additional particle (or prey) increases the angle, and the wall slides down at that point. This is a mini-avalanche. The doodlebug, sensing vibrations, begins to throw additional sand grains to the top ring of the depression causing more of the wall to slide, bringing the ant down to its jaws. The antlion injects venom into its victim to liquefy its insides to better consume its juices.

How does the doodlebug build such a pitfall trap? Wikipedia describes it this way: It begins by dragging its heavy abdomen around in a circle on the surface of the soft substrate. The groove looks like squiggle or “doodle” in the sand. Then “the antlion larva starts to crawl backwards, using its abdomen as a plough to shovel up the soil. By the aid of one front leg, it places consecutive heaps of loosened particles upon its head, then with a smart jerk throws each little pile clear of the scene of operations. Proceeding thus, it gradually works its way from the circumference towards the center. As it slowly moves round and round, the pit gradually gets deeper and deeper, until the slope reaches the critical angle of repose.” The doodlebug then settles down to wait in ambush at the bottom of the sand trap.

This passive form of hunting with an ingenious trap is clever and effective. Sometimes the doodlebug must wait long periods until some hapless prey accidentally falls into its trap. This means it may not get a regular supply of food. To make up for this drawback, the larva has a low metabolism and grows slowly. It can wait months, maybe even years, to grow enough to be able to pupate and become an adult.

The adults are rather large (sometimes two inches long), with four membranous wings. They can be mistaken for dragonflies or damselflies. To distinguish an antlion from a damselfly, look at the tips of its antennae. If there are knobs on the ends of the antennae, you are observing an antlion. The adults are not as well-known as the larvae, because they typically fly at dusk or during the dark. They are attracted to porch lights where they flutter around looking for mates. Adults live about 25 days, during which they feed on pollen and nectar, although some species may prey on small arthropods.

There are about 2,000 antlion species worldwide, chiefly in warmer areas. “Antlions usually live in dry habitats including open woodland floors, scrub-clad dunes, hedge bases, river banks, road verges, under raised buildings, and in vacant lots.” Since they are very nearly cosmopolitan in distribution, it is not surprising that many cultures around the world have doodlebug chants. One of my favorites is from Antiqua where the doodlebug is called a “jam-pee-pee.”

Jam-pee-pee! Jam-pee-pee! Mammy call you for funjee and saltfish.

This chant implies that doodlebugs can be enticed out of their pits by offering up the national dish.

Many other chants around the world offer food to the creatures, but others are quite violent and threatening, such as:

Doodlebug, doodlebug,

Come out of your hole;

If you don’t,

I’ll beat you black as a mole.

Perhaps the most well-known example of a doodlebug charm was published in 1876, when writer Mark Twain included one in his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, tell me what I want to know!””

Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke had such vivid memories of his childhood experiences with doodlebugs, he compared certain lunar craters to antlion pits. A conversation he had while on the moon’s surface includes a version of the antlion chant: “Doodle-bug, doodle-bug, are you at home?” It is unlikely he found any real doodlebugs on the moon! But, you can find one here in South Texas. Introduce the children in your life to doodlebugs!

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