by Newt Harlan
The other evening we were sitting around the bar down at the watering hole, sipping a few cool ones and swapping honest lies, when somehow we got on the topic of “doodlebugs.” I wasn’t surprised when a debate began as to what actually a “doodlebug” was or is, since as long as I can remember this has always been a controversy.
Some folks believe that a doodlebug is the creature that digs inverted cone-shaped traps in the dry powdery, loose soil found on the dirt floors of unused outbuildings and under buildings built on piers, then hides at the bottom waiting to make a meal of any unwary, small insect prey such as ants, that might wander into its lair and be trapped.
Others say no, this bug is called the antlion and that doodlebugs are the little gray things resembling tiny armadillos without head or tail, which roll themselves into tight balls when disturbed, also known as “pill bugs” and “roly-polys.”
Except to tell them the dictionary ascribes the doodlebug name to both antlions and roly-polys, I pretty much stayed out of the discussion since I had heard both sides of the argument many times before, dating back to my childhood days. In fact, I can remember more than one fistfight in elementary school that was precipitated by doodlebug discussions. [“Hey y’all, come see all these doodle bugs over here!” "You stupid butt face, everybody knows them’s roly-polys.” “They ain’t neither, you ignorant heathen, them’s doodlebugs.” “Ain’t neither.” (Face to face now) “Are too." "Ain’t neither.” Whap!]
Just for the record, I always thought the “real” doodlebugs were the roly-polys and that the others were rightfully called antlions, but I never believed strongly enough either way to come to blows.
Anyway, the doodlebug discussion got my memory wheels turning and I started remembering some of the bugs we used to see and play with when I was a barefoot boy.
Of course, there was the aforementioned doodlebug/antlion. These were good for rainy day entertainment. You could crawl under the house or go into one of the outbuildings not in use and find an area where there were antlion signs, usually their funnel-shaped traps or the “doodle” trails in the powdery dirt where the antlion had wandered looking for the ideal place to build his trap. If you were lucky, you’d find one and with a little patience you could watch him build his trap.
First he’d wander around the area looking for the ideal location. When he finally found just the right place, he’d make a perfect circle track about 2” in diameter. Then he’d begin backing around in ever-smaller circles, digging deeper and deeper with his back legs and energetically tossing the loose dirt out with his head. After about 15 minutes of digging he’d have a round spiral pit about 1 ½” to 2” deep and would burrow down into the bottom with his head barely showing to await his prey.
That’s when the fun started. You could take a broom straw or weed stem and gently knock grains of sand into his trap and fool him into thinking he’d captured some prey and watch as he searched all around looking for the dinner that wasn’t there. Then after a few minutes of teasing, you could capture a few ants or other small insets and drop them into his trap, watching as he captured and devoured them. Then you could destroy his trap and find some other bugs to play with. (If you checked back thirty minutes or so later, you’d find he’d completely re-built.)
Doodlebug/roly-polys were more pests than anything else. These really aren’t insects, but rather crustaceans like crawfish and shrimp. During normal times we rarely encountered pillbugs or roly-polys, except occasionally under a lumber pile when we moved it or something like that, but when a dry spell came along it seemed like they swarmed to anywhere that was damp and cool. They were especially attracted to buildings built on concrete slabs. When the weather was dry, these pests frequently infested our washhouse and milk house and we’d have to spend an extra thirty minutes a day just sweeping them out. They were especially annoying to folks who lived in “new” houses built on slabs rather than pier and beams. I heard tales of young kids eating pillbugs, but don’t recall hearing of any ill effects. (It seems like I do remember my youngest sister, Pam, eating some on a double-dog dare one time when she was a tagalong getting in the way of the “big kids,” but even now I figure I danged well better not mention it.) One fun thing we did with roly-polys was gather up a bunch of them and make them roll into balls, then have contests to see who could flick them the farthest with our fingers. I think the record was 31 feet.
Know what a “time bug” is? Time bugs lived on senna-bean plants and resembled somewhat a ladybug beetle. They really could tell the time. The way it worked was you caught one off the senna-bean plant, put it in your hand and closed your hand loosely around the time bug. You then shook your hand with the bug inside vigorously for a few seconds. You then took the time bug and, holding it between your thumb and forefinger in front of your mouth, said, “Time bug, time bug, if you don’t tell me the time I’ll pinch your head off.” You then held the bug to your ear and counted the clicks it made. The number of clicks equaled the hour of the day. The bugs weren’t smart enough to do minutes and we had to pinch the heads off quite a few of them for being inaccurate. (With all the subdivisions that have gone in around here, I haven’t seen a senna-bean bush in a good many years now, much less a time bug.)
June bugs were another source of entertainment in those days. After dark, we’d gather on the porch, turn on the light and catch the June bugs as they came swarming to the light and put them in an empty mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the lid. We soon learned that bugs were easier to catch when we left the porch light off and just picked them off the screens on the windows and doors. Occasionally we’d have contests to see who could catch the most, but usually we just put them in a community jar.
One time I tried tying a thread around a June bug’s neck and making it fly on a tether like a kite. It didn’t work too well since June bugs aren’t real good flyers to start with. He kinda took off and about the time I was fixing to control him, he just crashed down. I never did find one that was a good flyer. Folks told me you could do this with bumblebees, but I was never brave enough to try.
Probably more fun than catching June bugs was taking them out the next morning and feeding them to the chickens. Boy them chickens could flat out catch them June bugs. We hadn’t heard that thing about “faster than a duck on a June bug” back then, so we never did take any down to the pond to feed to the ducks and check it out, but a chicken gets on a June bug pretty danged quick.
Another nighttime insect that gave us hours of fun was the firefly or, as they’re properly called in Texas and throughout the South, lightnin’ bugs. We spent many hours chasing and capturing lightnin’ bugs and putting them in jars. We marveled at their glowing, blinking tails, tried to figure out how they worked and never did. (We weren’t alone, scientists still haven’t completely figured out exactly how they do it.) We even spent nights sleeping out in the yard in makeshift tents made from blankets, just so we could use our lightnin’ bug lanterns for light. It didn’t work too well, but we had fun sleeping out anyway. Lightnin’ bugs are one thing I really miss on an early evening nowadays. All these subdivisions around here have stolen the lightnin’ bug habitat and pesticides have got the rest. They tell us it’s progress, but I much prefer the lightnin’ bugs.
Growing up around cattle and horses, I became a tumblebug watcher at a very young age, which isn't surprising. A tumblebug isn’t really a bug, but a beetle. It gathers fresh cow and horse manure and rolls it into tightly packed balls from about an inch to two inches in diameter. The bugs then roll these balls of dung away somewhere to bury and to feed upon and lay eggs in and rear their young. Although I saw lots of tumblebugs rolling, I never did see any of them actually burying or eating the dung balls.
When I was in the 6th or 7th grade, we studied the ancient Egyptians in world history, and we all had to do an oral report for the class. We had learned that the scarab beetle was a sacred symbol to the ancient Egyptians and later to Roman soldiers, who wore rings with a scarab beetle seal. I decided to do my report on that. Upon doing the research for my report, I learned that the sacred scarab beetle was actually a tumblebug. Boy, would that ever make an interesting report.
I caught several live tumblebugs and collected eight or ten of their dung balls. Then I decided I needed one for each student in the class and one for Miss Hester, the teacher, so I just got a few goat pills and horse apples to substitute for those I was short and put them all in a paper sack. I got my report all written up and could hardly wait for time to give it, just knowing I had a really interesting paper and, with my visuals, would get a good grade.
Finally the day came, and it was my turn to give my report. Before going to the front of the room, I passed out a dung ball to each student and one to Miss Hester without saying anything. I started my report and told them all about the history and sacred writings and stuff. As I read my report, most of the students and Miss Hester idly played with the dung balls, rolling them between their fingers and things. Nobody was really paying attention to me until I got to the part where I reached into my sack and pulled out the live tumblebug and a dung ball and said, “Y’all will all probably be surprised to learn that the sacred scarab was nothing more than a common tumblebug like this one, and the earth in the legend was nothing but a ball of dung like each of y’all has in your hand.”
Needless to say, I didn’t get to finish my report. Girls started squealing and running for the restroom and the boys started throwing dung balls at me. Miss Hester eventually restored order and I made a trip down to the principal’s office. I still think it was a good report.
Newt tells us about himself:
I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.
I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.
Want to read more of Newt’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Ol’ Red and the Armadillo
Telephones and memories
Tastes like chicken
Basura Blanca News
That's Entertainment . . . '50s Style
Belly Waddin' Lunch
Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.
Want to leave a comment on Newt’s story?
Please visit our Message Board
or write Ye Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back to USADEEPSOUTH - I index page
Back to USADEEPSOUTH - II index page