“Doodlebug” is a nickname applied to several things.

The bugs which the nickname is usually used for are antlions in their larval form. The antlion larva burrows into loose, dry, bare, sandy soil and constructs a cone-shaped pit by flipping loose soil out of the hole with its head.

The antlion begins a pit by walking backward and pressing its wide, flattened abdomen into the soil.  This process creates a winding trail that is allegedly the source of the name “doodlebug,”  because “to doodle” means to make aimless scribbles or sketches.

When the doodlebug is under the loose soil, the flipping starts. Using the head and long, sickle-shaped mandibles, the antlion digs deeper and deeper into the soil by energetically throwing the sand to the surface. The finished pit may be 1 to 2 inches across and deep.

Mostly ants, but other insects as well, become food for the waiting antlion.  A hapless ant slips into the pit.  As it scrambles to crawl back out the top, grains of sand along the sides of the pit slide to the bottom and carry the ant closer to the open “jaws of doom.”  An ant that reaches the bottom of the pit rarely escapes.

An antlion makes several pits and repeats the feeding process several times as it grows and develops over a time that may last a long as 3 years. They are difficult to find because they spend so much time motionless at the bottom of the pit.  Also, they are tan or brown (dirt-colored) and usually camouflaged under a thin layer of dust or sand. The antlion will be up to ½ inch long with a flat, wedge-shaped body, the head narrower than the abdomen. Most prominent feature are the sharp, thin, sickle-shaped mandibles extending from the front of the head.

A fully grown antlion forms a cocoon in the ground and transforms to the adult stage. Antlion adults are up to 2 inches long and look like damselflies or dragonflies.  The adults are seldom seen because they are active at night. 

Doodlebugs are not harmful, though they can bite. Children used to (and perhaps still do) try to coax doodlebugs out of their holes by reciting charms. Here’s one from the early 1900s, very similar to the old verse about ladybugs:

Doodlebug, doodlebug,
Come out of your hole;
Your house is on fire,
And your children will burn.

The term “doodlebug” has also been applied to:

—pill bugs and some beetles

—a simpleton or time-waster

—a scribbler or doodler

—a divining rod for locating oil deposits

—a World War II-era Nazi drone bomb (also known as “buzzbombs”)

—a self-propelled rail car

—DIY tractors, usually made from old cars

“Doodlebug” is sometimes used as an endearment, which is not surprising, because it’s kind of a cute word.

However, when I see all the other things it’s been used for, I think I’ll pass.

  One thought on “doodlebug

  1. April 24, 2022 at 7:00 am

    I suppose because of my UK post war memories, I immediately thought of the bombs. There was such horror attached to the name doodlebugs for the damage they could inflict. It was good to read of the nice meanings. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

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