Doodling on South Padre Island

Doodle Bugs

By Kay Lay

As a kid, I always had a lot of friends but what I enjoyed the most was the natural world around me. My family had normal household pets like Heinz 57 dogs, the occasional stray pregnant cat, parakeets, hamsters, fish, and even a few dyed hot pink chicks at Easter.  But I always had my very own collection of other special little critters.  For example, I kept my horny toads in a big bowl in the garage. Lightning bugs I kept in jelly jars with ice pick holes punched in the tops so they could breathe.  I had tiny little blind snakes that looked more like worms and earthworms that were so big they looked more like snakes.  Pillbugs or rolly-polly bugs were cool, too.

Until noticing little funnel-shaped pits in my backyard last year, I had forgotten all about another tiny critter in my childhood mini-zoo, the “doodlebug.”  Also called the “antlion,” this insect belongs to the most primitive order of insects (Neuroptera) that go through a complete metamorphosis.  The name, antlion was inspired by its behavior while in the larva stage.  In sandy regions like Padre Island, the larvae dig cone-shaped pits. Hiding just below the surface at the center, the bug waits for an ant or some other small insect to fall down the loose sand.  When trapped, the antlion sucks the fluids from the victim through hollow jaws, then discards the dried carcass by flicking it out of the pit. The name “doodlebug” is derived from its habit of leaving little random lines in the sand while  searching out the perfect spot to dig its pit; much like people do, absent mindedly, with pencil and paper.

I use to catch doodlebugs with a spoon.  I would lift one out by dipping the spoon around and under the pit, being careful not to harm the little bugger.  Then I would pour the sandy soil over the palm of my hand.  They are pretty small, only about ½ inch to 1 inch long and the same color as the soil.  They could easily be overlooked so it required a steady hand.  Once captured, I could give it a thorough examination.   Or if I just wanted to “doodle” with it, I would use a blade of grass and “tickle” the sand at the base of the pit.  This was sure to get their attention.

There are approximately 2000 species of antlions around the world.  Folklore abounds with stories of people summoning antlions with rhymes to entice them out of their hiding places. The bug even came into conversation between Apollo 16 astronauts while walking around on the Moon.  One astronaut is said to have commented how much like a doodlebug hole one of the craters looked.

Compared to their ferocious appearance and behavior during the larvae stage, adult doodlebugs are rather mundane.  They resemble dragonflies or damselflies but are seldom seen because they only come out at night.  I suppose they’re like a lot of other critters in the animal kingdom; they are just more fun before they grow up.

Kay Lay writes about the natural history of South Texas. She is the author of Don’t Pass the Beans, a guide to the sea beans of South Padre Island and is co-author with her sister Gayle S Runnels, of Amigo the Friendly Gray Whale, a childrens book about the adventures of a young whale who disobeys his mother and becomes seperated from the pod. Both books are available at Paragraphs on the Blvd and from the authors.












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