Les Ascalaphes et les Fourmilions

It seems so unlikely that anyone would call this splendid creature 'the sulphur ascalaphe'. You would think that the French peasantry at some time had given it a common name. All that seems to exist is the absurd name of ascalaphe soufré, certainly derived from the scientific name of Ascalaphus. The natural history of this spectacular insect and its relatives is ill known. Probably the everyday French imagine it is a kind of 'papillon', and early naturalists thought so as well. Our British visitors often think the same.

In early summer you see them glide over the hay meadows settling on long stems of grass or flowers. Its spectacular flight and bright yellow colour draws attention and it looks very like a butterfly. There are several species in the south and none are found in England, yet!

As it glides a metre or two above the long grass it catches small insects in flight and then, when it rests, munches them. The ends of the antennae shaped into large swollen clubs distinguish it easily from any butterfly. And in any case, all butterflies drink nectar and other fluids with their long probosci which, when out of use, are coiled like springs. By the end of July the adult ascalaphids are unlikely to be seen. By then the females have laid eggs on stems near to the ground. These eggs are in batches and are usually protected below by groups of rod like structures which may perhaps prevent predators climbing up to eat them. The larvae living amongst the fallen leaves of autumn eat other insects, for which they have massive jaws. These larvae of the ascalaphes live for two years in the leaf litter, which is also remarkable. They pupate in the second spring, to emerge as adults shortly after.

Their closest relatives are the very similar ant-lions (les fourmilions). These are again larvae and some are famous for making pits in sandy soil so that ants and other wanderers might fall in. The adults look very like dragon flies. It was such an insect flapping at the window pane which made me think again about this rather strange group of insects It had yellow spots on its body, but it had an attitude, a 'sizz' which seemed unlike a dragonfly. A short study persuaded me that it was an adult ant-lion or a relative. If you do not observe the thick antennae of the adult, you would certainly confuse them.


natural history index | home page