No place like Norfolk for rare insect

They are far from warm and cuddly - and predatory and savage are the more appropriate words to describe the mysterious insect.

But while it may not be the most loveable of creatures, the rare antlion is clearly happy to be in Norfolk and a new survey published today reveals that the county has only its second breeding area in Britain.

There had been reports of antlions in the sandy ground beneath the Natural England Holkham National Nature Reserve's pine woods since 2005, but there was uncertainty about the exact species and numbers involved.

In 2008, staff carried out a full survey of the site which discovered just over 700 larval pits and confirmed the species as Euroleon nostras.

However, the scarcity of this insect in the UK meant there was always the chance it could be temporary colonisation.

Now the new research has found 1,905 larval pits, confirming not only that the colony was still present but had almost trebled in size.

Holkham NNR is such a suitable site for the antlion because it has open banks of sand for the larval pits, abundant prey and pine trees, where the adults mate.

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Natural England's senior reserve manager Michael Rooney said: 'We're really pleased with what the two surveys revealed that the antlions are thriving at Holkham, with a sizeable population spreading through the pine woodland. It will be interesting to see what will migrate north to Holkham next.'

The only other known breeding area for the insect is the Suffolk sandlings and the confirmation of an established breeding area in Holkham is another great success for the reserve, which also hosts Britain's only breeding spoonbill colony.

Antlions' larvae excavate cone-like pits and lurk in wait for other insect prey.

Although the adults look like small dragonflies, antlions are members of the lacewing family and are chiefly known for their ferocious young.

The larvae's prey includes ants, woodlice and other small invertebrates.

Any insect unlucky enough to wander over the rim of the cone shaped burrow finds itself sliding down the steeply angled, shifting sand and at the bottom it is seized in the antlion's huge jaws and sucked dry.

The larvae live like this for two years before pupating into flying adults in late summer.

Like other lacewings, the adults lead much briefer lives than their young – less than a month.