Lake Lenape Park in Mays Landing is busy with boaters, fishermen and families enjoying a walk these spring days.

Beyond the second gate that bars motor vehicles, the dirt road follows the west side of the lake into more natural, less traveled old pine forest.

Here, the egg-shell remains of last year's snapping turtle nest look much like the day the last cute baby turtle left to become a nightmare to aquatic life.

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Pine warblers are back, their trilling song part of a murmur of forest life that's more peaceful than silence.

Under your feet, a prehistoric enmity has already been renewed.

Look closely at the sandy soil and you'll see many little cone pits dug in the surface, about a half-inch across and deep.

At the bottom of each round pit is a single ant lion, a ferocious predator with fearful jaws. Fortunately for us, it only grows to a third of an inch long.

As the name given to them by the ancient Greeks so aptly suggests, ant lions are top-of-the-line hunters of the world's most abundant insect.

When an ant (or other tiny insect) stumbles into the pit, the ant lion seizes it with two oversized piercing jaws. First, a secretion from the jaws paralyzes the victim, and then the piercing parts suck the body fluids out of it.

When done, the ant lion jerks its head and jaws upward, throwing the emptied ant body out of its pit. This same motion is used to throw out sand for maintenance.

I confess that I used to summon this small spectacle by catching an ant and placing it in an ant-lion pit. You can also take a blade of grass and try to provoke an ant lion with it, which should at least prompt it to throw sand from the pit.

Ant lions are sometimes called doodlebugs for the trails they leave in the sand as they search for a good pit location.

They are only fearsome predators in their juvenile larval stage.

Once the ant lion has eaten enough, it spins a silken cocoon around itself, still in the sandy soil.

After metamorphosis, it emerges as a lacewing that flies in the night, an inch-and-a-half long and similar to a damselfly. The ant lion lacewings may not eat at all, but they mate and the female deposits eggs in the sand that will hatch into the next generation of predators.

Ant lions and ants, both among the oldest kinds of insects, have been at this for more than 100 million years.

Feeding on ants is not considered as beneficial as the work lacewings do to keep aphids under control. Ants do some good themselves, cleaning up debris and preying on immature forms of many insect pests.

We tend to think first, however, of the ants that cause us problems, such as the big, black carpenter ants that can bring down trees.

Small red ants are excavating beneath a crack in the cement under my garage door. The dirt they bring up eventually interferes with closing the door, so I'm trying reader David Neff's proposed solution of filling the crack with construction adhesive.

My sympathies, therefore, are at the moment with the ant lions, even though they're little monsters.

Contact Kevin Post:

609-272-7250

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