columnist

Thom Smith, NatureWatch columnist.

Myrmeleontidae_(antlion)_5370350.jpg

A "doodlebug" is the common name for the larvae of the antlion.

READER QUESTIONS

Q: We started getting all these little tunnel holes in my mom's flower bed (no flowers planted yet, just weeded and ready to go). They are little tunnels, probably no more than a 1/2 to 1 inch in the ground. When I was mowing tonight I stopped to look at them and noticed one of them had something like spitting a small amount of dirt up out of the hole. Any idea what these are from? They are along the cement foundation in the front of our house.

— Denise C.

A: You may have heard of "doodlebugs,” and if so, these are the creatures that have made the funnel-shaped cones in your yard. They are made by the larvae of an insect better going by the name antlion. They are considered valuable for feeding on ants and other insects. Down south they are even more valuable for feeding on fire ants.

I first met them in a sandy plot beneath a rock structure at Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield. In my later teen years, I often joined S. Waldo Bailey, botanical warden at Bartholomew's Cobble from 1946 to 1963, and these little sandy treats, when first introduced intrigued, then and even today and I would try to encourage a larva to poke up from beneath the sand to catch an insect. Only a few times through the years was I successful and so fast was the doodlebug that it would recognize the subterfuge that within an instant it would retreat. My bate was a thin grass blade and I long ago learned to creep up making as little vibration as possible. And more than likely, many of these up to 2 inches in diameter and the same depth will be found within a few inches each. Often, they are found in sandy soil, where beneath a single larva will wait for an inspecting prey to fall in or slip down and be grabbed by its jaws.

The antlion itself is the larvae and is a predator, while adults feed on pollen and nectar.

In time, these larvae pupate into dragonfly-like creatures that usually take it easy until later in the evening.

Antlion larvae are truly the most mesmerizing of insect predators. Especially if you encounter one capturing an insect you toss into its funnel-like structure and it captures your treat with its sizeable pair of jaws. Like a spider, it will paralyze its potential meal by injecting poison. It then sucks out the nutritious juices and tosses away the empty carcass.

Antlion larvae are truly one of the most fascinating insect predators!

COMMENTS

Bill A. wrote: “A raccoon got into three of our birdhouses. Tore the top of one and managed to get his paw in the others and pull out all the nesting material and whatever eggs or baby birds where in there.”

NatureWatch’s comment about this carnivore: It is like black bears in feeding, in that they appear to choose many of the same meals. Bears, too, are known to break into birdhouses to gather eggs and hatchlings. Raccoons inhabit not only woodlands, wetlands, and agricultural fields, but also parks, neighborhoods, and other places I can think of. While they are primarily nocturnal, they can also be seen during daylight. They are opportunists, eating both animal and plant meals (often in the season, grains, mast, and fruits.) They don’t pass up garden crops like berries, grapes, tomatoes, apples, pears, corn, and grasses, and for the animal matter, they relish frogs, crayfish, turtles, fish, snakes, earthworms, and as Bill A. found, birds and their eggs. Raccoons also feed on crickets and grasshoppers, honeybees and other insects, shrews, mice, squirrels, and also carrion and garbage!

Fortunately, they have predators that (usually) keep them in check, including man and dogs, great-horned owls, coyotes, bobcats, possibly fishers, coyotes, and especially, automobiles.

Nancy P., from Stockbridge, wrote:  “Maybe four years ago I think it was your column that mentioned planting milkweed seeds in the fall and again in the spring after letting the seeds kept in a cold shed for the winter — we kept the in the garage. We must have planted maybe 25 seeds and a few did sprout. Now, like your comment, they have become a weed. Fortunately they are in a patch of their own. Most are budding and will be attracting pollinators. Last year, as I recall, there was a monarch caterpillar and maybe probably made it to become a butterfly.”

WATER CHESTNUTS IN CHESHIRE RESERVOIR

Liseann Karandisecky writes: "I am the current prudential chairman of the Hoosac Lake Recreation/Preservation District "HLD". Here on "Cheshire Lake" in Cheshire. I just read your 2021 article in the Berkshire Eagle about water chestnuts and wanted to reach out to you. I live on the north basin [of Cheshire Reservoir] and part of the reason I became involved with the prudential committee was because of the water chestnuts. I noticed them three years ago in the cove across the street from us.

At the time, I was not on the prudential committee but asked if I could do a ride along with SOLitude [Lake Management], I wanted to point these out to them as I had never seen them before.

I have been fishing/swimming on this lake on and off for the past 55 years and this plant was new to me. Dominic from SOLitude knew what it was before I even showed him. He had pointed these out previously to the prudential committee and warned them about these invasive plants.

This started my journey of researching them and trying to control them here on our lake.

Last year, I was voted onto this committee and the first thing I did was apply for permits to pull these. I organized multiple group pulls and was telling anyone who would listen about the water chestnuts. I was stunned at how many plants we had last year as opposed to 2020. We pulled some serious numbers out last summer, and this year it made a difference but we still have more work to do. As you know, the seedbed is no joke. 

We are now working with Pond and Lake Connection out of Connecticut for our weed treatments. We also hired a consultant to do some in-depth plant studies for us.

We are getting ready to do more group pulls, last summer it was limited to volunteers from the HLD. I know it's getting late to pull now, so I am hoping to get a larger group of volunteers and hold 1-2 big days of pulling instead of a few people pulling once a week for June, July, and August.

I also just got appointed to the Council of Aging here in Cheshire and they have asked me to write an article on water chestnuts for the "Cheshire Chatter," the council's bi-monthly newsletter."

Email Thom Smith at Naturewatch41@gmail.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.