OAKLEY, Md. (WHTM) — It certainly looks like an ant, doesn’t it?
In fact, the red velvet ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) isn’t an ant at all, but a wasp. At around 3/4 of an inch long, it’s the largest of about 400 velvet ant species in the United States. (I photographed this one in Maryland, but they also show up in Pennsylvania.) They are solitary wasps – you won’t find large red velvet ant nests.
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Females, like the one in this video, have no wings and cannot fly. The males look pretty much like females but have black wings. They’re the ones who have to do all the flying around when it’s time to look for a mate.
There’s a bit of uncertainty about its diet. Some sources state the adult red velvet ant is a predator, eating other insects. Others suggest the adults primarily feed on nectar. (Perhaps it’s both?)
What is certain is red velvets are parasitoid wasps. After mating, the female looks for the nest of a host species, usually a ground-nesting bee or wasp. She digs into the nest and deposits her eggs on the pupae she finds there. When the red velvet ant eggs hatch, the larvae eat the pupae of the host species, then pupate themselves and emerge as adults.
You’d think insects that can only crawl along the ground would be easy pickings for other predators. But red velvet ants have a number of defenses. Their red and black coloring is a warning to predators that they’re not to be messed with. As you can see in the video they actually move pretty fast. They also have very thick, tough exoskeletons. They don’t crunch easily. If something (or someone) continues to bother them, they can secrete a smelly “stay away” chemical, and actually issue a warning squeak or chirp, using a “stridulatory organ” on their abdomen.
And when all else fails, there’s always the sting.
The sting of a red velvet ant is up there in “you won’t die, you just wish you could” territory. Dr. Justin Schmidt’s sting pain index ranks it at 3 out of 4, with 4 being the most painful. The sting has earned the red velvet ant the nickname “cow killer”, though there seems to be no evidence of them actually ever taking down a cow. One thing is certain, a predator that tries to eat a red velvet ant once is unlikely to try it twice.
(The male has no stinger, but fakes stinging pretty convincingly, sometimes even startling trained entomologists into dropping them.)
Fortunately for us, the red velvet ant is not an aggressive insect. She just wants to do her red velvet ant thing, and be left alone. If you see one, enjoy watching a truly interesting member of the insect world. Just remember, look but don’t touch.
For more about the Justin Schmidt sting pain index, click here.