“Those creatures give me the creeps.” Precilla points at the little hollow next to the steps up to Boggel’s Place. “I once saw a picture of one of them, and boy, are they ugly!”
“Well, they have a distinct disadvantage when you compare them to jackals and swans, if that’s what you’re getting at. But we mustn’t be harsh. When last did you see Boggel before he brushed his teeth in the morning? Man, now there’s a sight to scare small children with.” He’s teasing, of course. Kleinpiet actually likes the little bent barman a lot.
In the stifling heat of a typical Kalahari day, the townsfolk have assembled under the veranda in front of the bar, where Gertruida now stops fanning herself.
“One must never underestimate Nature, guys. That little antlion has survived all the millennia to come and make it’s nest here. There is evidence of antlion fossils dating back 150 million years! Droughts and floods, progress and war have not changed its lifestyle one bit. It’s a true survivor.”
“But it is rather primitive, won’t you say? It digs a hole, waits for an unsuspecting passer-by and then devours it. And, I heard, those jaws are quite poisonous. Got a venom in there that stuns its prey.”
“That’s right, Precilla. It sucks the victim dry, chucks out the hard bits, and lives on the fluid it gets in this way. Never drinks. And…it doesn’t have an anus. What it takes in, remains in. At least, until the change comes, it retains everything inside.”
“Ugh! That’s despicable! Imagine that? A lazy little blob, waiting at the bottom of the pit for a free meal…it sounds like the parliament, if you ask me.”
“Now there’s an unlikely comparison if ever I heard one! It takes the concept of bottom-feeder to a completely new level. A low level, I might add.”
Gertruida gets up to stand behind her chair. They all know she wants to deliver another lecture, so they quickly order another round. Gertruida can lecture the legs off a donkey when she’s in the mood.
“One of the most beautiful things in nature happens with that poor animal you so wrongly judge to be ugly. Sure, it’s got jaws. And sure, it has a bit of venom. And yes, it waits patiently at the bottom of the little pit it dug without hands or tools.
“At least, it isn’t devious about what it’s doing. That hole is there for anyone to see. If you get trapped there, it’s because you weren’t paying attention. The antlion only does what it has to do.
“Now, consider the 2,000 species of insects in the family Myrmeleontida. They occur world-wide, but prefer to live under inhospitable circumstances. They don’t like a crowd, you see? They are called by many names: Little Dog of the Wood, Pit Elephant, Doodlebug, Little Armadillo and Vulture Louse. The Spanish call it Tonto – Little Bull – which always reminds me of the famous Indian in the cowboy stories.
“What is interesting, is the little pit you observe down there. That’s made by a larva – the baby that emerged from the egg it’s mother laid. At first, it practices its trade from a small pit, catching small prey. As it grows, it makes larger and larger pits to catch more appetising meals.
“But it is completely defenceless, as you can see. The little pit is exposed to wind and rain and anything that treads, trots or slithers across it. Whenever the pit is destroyed, the antlion simply constructs a new one. It has to, to get to the next stage.”
“What next stage?” Vetfaan has seen large areas of the Kalahari with these little pits, and never thought much about it. An antlion is an antlion – you don’t end up studying them, for goodness sakes! Now, with Gertruida in full cry, he is strangely intrigued.
“Well, they evolve, you see. Once the larval stage is over, they turn into lacewings.”
Warming to her subject, she tells them how the helpless, ugly creature becomes a little silk-lined cocoon. After a month of so in this pupal stage, they finally emerge as an adult insect.
“The transformation is remarkable. The helpless, immature larva emerges from the cocoon as a beautiful little animal, much larger than the antlion, it is able to fly. People often confuse them with dragonflies, unless they pay attention to the clubbed antennae of the lacewing.
“Mostly nocturnal, they even get swatted by people who take them to be largish mosquitoes.
“So, my friends, don’t look down on that hapless creature surviving below the surface in that hole. It’s really trying to find a way to become what it should be: a flying beauty.”
Ever the romantic, Precilla smiles shyly.
“Wow! At first an egg. Then an ugly larva – and then, under the right circumstances, it spreads its wings to discover a completely different way of living. That’s so sweet!”
Gertruida isn’t finished yet. “There is a fable, Precilla, about these antlions. A small group of San people say that ithey represent the way it is with men and women. They revere the antlion as a sort of good luck sign. You see, they say we are all born to be helpless and then we try to fight our way through life. But…as we all find out, it is often through many trials and tribulations that we realise we have the ability to fly. We can leave the pit of selfish existence to spread our wings in search of a mate. When those San people see the the fluttering lacewings, they tell each other about a better life; a life where they find freedom and love. To them, an antlion is a sign of love.”
They watch as an ant tumbles down the steep side of the pit. The waiting antlion pounces immediately, dragging it’s prey below the surface.
“Ugh,” Precilla says.
“It’ll fly one day,” Gertruida smiles, “become something beautiful.”
“Like love, Gertruida?” Vetfaan doesn’t get it.
“Exactly, Vetfaan. Antlions are Mother Nature’s fairytale. It’s the story of Cinderella who gets rescued from hardship. Or Sleeping Beauty who wakes up. Even…Pinocchio who gets to feel what it is to be alive. The beast, turning into beauty. Love does that, my friend. It is only once we discover the wings of love that we finally discover the wonder of flight.”
Boggel gets up put an empty bottle near the antlion’s pit.
“Just so we don’t step on it accidentally,” he explains. “Even an antlion needs some protection sometimes. It’s the least we can do.”
Gertruida smiles quietly. Yes, she thinks, love is such a vulnerable thing…