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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen


Title:     Ant-Lions
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]


Many years ago a friend sent me some of these remarkable insects from the Riviera, and for sixteen months I fed them as regularly as possible, but the cold of a remarkably severe winter killed them, to my great disappointment, as I had hoped to be rewarded by a sight of the perfect insect.

Ant-lions are not, I believe, found in any part of England, so I had to wait till I could again procure some from the south of France, where they are frequently met with in dry, sandy places.

Early in March this year (1890) three specimens were sent me and were at once placed in a box of dry silver sand, where they buried themselves and remained quietly resting for some hours.

Many of my readers may be interested to know what the ant-lion is like, and why I thought it worth while to take great pains to rear it. These young specimens were flat, grey, six-legged creatures about the size of a small lady-bird, covered with hairs, and possessing two strong forceps projecting from their heads. They are so formed that they cannot go forward, but move always backward by a series of jerks. As they live upon ants and are so strangely formed, they have to resort to stratagem in order to entrap their prey, and this they do by means of pits formed in the sand in which they live; into these pits the ants fall, and are seized by the forceps of the ant-lion, who lies in wait at the bottom.

Many a time have I watched the formation of these pits, and will try to describe the process. The insect begins describing a small circle on the surface of the sand by jerking himself backwards and flinging the sand away with his flat head and closed forceps, which form a kind of shovel. Each circle is smaller than the last, until the pit is like an inverted cone, and the ant-lion lies buried at the bottom, only his forceps being visible. When an ant has fallen headlong down into the pit it makes frantic efforts to escape, and if the ant-lion sees that it is likely to get beyond his reach, he then with his forceps flings some sand at it with such unerring aim the poor victim is sure to roll over and over until it reaches the jaws of its captor, who feasts upon it and then flings the remains of the body out of the pit.

One difficulty was how to ensure a supply of ants, but this was overcome by filling a box with part of an ants' nest, and as these insects settled down and seemed content with their quarters, they were ready when wanted, and three times a day the lions had to be fed! One learns to sacrifice one's feelings in the cause of science, but to the last it was a real distress to me to have to put the poor little ants where they would be devoured; but Nature is cruel, and from the real lion to his insect namesake, preying upon one another seems the prevailing law of her realm.

As the ant-lions grew, the pits increased in size. At first they were about as large as a threepenny-piece, but ended by measuring more than two inches across.

I could not tell whether the insect moulted its skin, as it was always hidden, but in July, after four months' feeding, the ant-lions changed into chrysalides, which looked like perfectly round balls of sand.

The box was placed in a warm greenhouse, and in seven weeks' time the perfect insects appeared. They were like small dragon-flies, with slender bodies, four black-spotted gauzy wings, two large black eyes and short antennae.

I had read about their being nocturnal insects, feeding on flies, so they had that diet provided for them in the glass globe in which they were kept, but I could never feel sure that they ate the flies, and fearing they would be starved I tried giving them a little sweet food, a drop of raspberry syrup at the end of a twig; it seemed to be the right thing, for they greedily sucked it in, but in spite of all my care they only lived four weeks; which, however, is probably the term of their existence.

Whilst I was writing this paper a singular incident occurred. I heard a strange, wild note, and something brilliant dashed past me to the end of the room, and there, on a white marble bust sat a lovely kingfisher--a bird I had hardly ever seen, even at a distance, and here he had come to pay me a visit in my drawing-room. Would that I could have told him how welcome he was! but, alas! he darted about the room in wild alarm, flew against the looking-glasses, and though I tried to guard him from a plate-glass window, that has often proved fatal to birds, I was too late; he came with a crash against it and fell down quite dead, his neck being broken by the force of the blow.

I had heard that a kingfisher had been seen at my lake, and hoped that the bird might build and become established there; it was, therefore, a keen regret to me that this bright visitant had met with such an untimely fate.

[The end]
Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Ant-Lions