Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
The first time you see a velvet ant, you’ll be amazed by its elegance. But don’t touch it. In spite of their name, these beauties aren’t ants at all. They’re actually wasps in the Mutillidae family. The name velvet ant refers primarily to females, which lack wings and are covered in velvety hairs. They wander along the ground like ants. The males are larger and have wings; they actually look like what they are: wasps. The sexes don’t even hang out together except when breeding. The males fly solo while the females walk.
The easiest places to spot velvet ants are in the deserts of the Southwest and in Mexico, but they’re found in lesser numbers throughout the rest of the United States and in southern Canada.
With a range like that it should come as no surprise that velvet ants don’t all look alike. Individuals vary in length from 1/8-inch to 1 inch. The fuzzy coats vary, too, mostly in different shades of red, orange, yellow, white, and black. The reason for the females’ showy colors is still debated, but it’s agreed that they have at least two purposes: to help attract a mate and to warn off predators.
The insect’s hard exoskeleton serves many purposes, but the most important are to prevent water loss and to provide body armor. Few predators can bite through this armor. Females also are armed with a stinger that is used for protection and to immobilize prey. Males do not have stingers.
Since female velvet ants spend most of their lives wandering around, we’ve seen them frequently in appropriate habitats. But, so far, we haven’t been able to identify a male. Males occur in smaller numbers than the females, and show themselves only during the summer mating season. Maybe you’ll have better luck seeing one than we have. The next time you’re camped in a sandy area, watch for a wasp flying in an irregular pattern very close to the ground. It could be a male velvet ant looking for a female.
When the male finds a female of his species, he drops to the ground and they mate. Then he takes off. She continues to wander, but now she’s looking for a place to lay her eggs. These ladies don’t build their own nests; they use those created by bees or solitary wasps. Finding one isn’t easy, since the nest’s owner covers the entrance.
Given the opportunity, human observers can enjoy watching her nest-hunting behavior. She seems to show such persistence and dedication while investigating every dimple in the sand or tapping possible nest coverings with her antennae.
When a velvet ant finally finds a suitable burrow, she digs into it. She may find the nest builder inside guarding her eggs, which can result in a struggle. Trusting her body armor, the interloper may sting the nest owner, or she may simply push her way through to the nest cells and begin looking for immature bee or wasp pupa on which to lay her eggs. If she senses that the bee or wasp pupa inside a cocoon is nearly ready to emerge, she may sting it. Once she’s finished laying her eggs, the female carefully covers the nest entrance and resumes searching for another nest.
The velvet ant’s eggs will hatch in a few days and begin feeding on the host grub. Then, still inside its host’s cocoon, it constructs a cocoon of its own. The full-grown offspring may leave the nest in late summer or stay there through the winter. Once the adult emerges, eating is its top priority. Nectar is good, but so are flies, beetles, bees, and other wasps.
We’ll finish with some good advice about interacting with female velvet ants. Enjoy following the insect’s zigzag course through the sand, but don’t ever pick one up. You may not see the stinger, which is tucked under its abdomen, but you’ll certainly feel it. Should you be sitting on a rock or on the sand and notice one climbing up your leg, don’t slap it. Quickly brushing it off is far less likely to produce a painful result.
Finally, if you are stung, wash the sting site with soap and water, and follow up with a dab of antibiotic salve. If a person who is stung shows signs of an allergic reaction “” labored breathing, nausea, facial swelling, sweating, or chills “” get him or her to the nearest hospital. Untreated anaphylactic shock can be deadly.