Welcome to Volume 6 of my ‘Creature Features’. This month we spotlight an insect that is attractive, dangerous, and misnamed – the velvet ant. Misnamed you say? Hmmm. Read on and find out why in the following interesting facts.
- Insect Order: Hymenoptera = ‘Membrane-Winged’ Family – Mutillidae
- Velvet ants look like large, hairy ants but they are actually wasps. Yup! So, why do we call them ‘ants’, you ask? I have no idea. They are also known as ‘cow killers’. They differ from ants by having straight rather than elbowed antennae and there is only a slight constriction between the thorax and abdomen.
- Males have two pairs of black, transparent wings while the females are wingless. Velvet ants are brightly colored, hence attracting attention, and are shades of yellow and brown or red and black.
- These solitary ants may be seen in lawns and pastures, or on occasion will wander into buildings and believe me, they will get the attention of a homeowner (and potential customer!)
- Velvet ants are not aggressive and will try to escape any encounter. Females have a long, needle-like stinger concealed at the tip of the abdomen and they can deliver a very painful sting if handled (in other words, leave them alone!)
- There are about 3,000 known species of velvet ants and some of them can produce a squeaking or chirping sound when disturbed.
- The so-called ‘cow killer’ velvet ant is nearly an inch in length and is most common in late summer. This moniker is a result of the reputation surrounding the female’s sting.
- Adult velvet ants feed on nectar and water. The immature stages are external parasites of bees and wasps (also in the order Hymenoptera) that nest in the ground. Some species parasitize flies and beetles.
- Unlike fire ants, there are no identifiable nests to treat. Velvet ants prefer pastures and fields with sandy soil, where their prey is likely to be found.
There are no effective control measures for velvet ants. If they are abundant in a particular area, it may be useful to grow a good grass cover, which will discourage their prey from nesting there. Finally, because velvet ants are uncommon and cause no damage, no chemical control is recommended.