Velvet Ants are actually not ants at all. They are solitary, wingless wasps. They can be differentiated from true ants in having only a slight constriction, or pedicel, between the abdomen and thorax and in having antennae that are not elbowed. Females are most frequently seen. Male Velvet Ants are fully winged and are seldom discovered. Velvet Ants are venomous insects. They have docile dispositions, but will inflict a painful sting if mishandled.
Range and Habitat
Velvet Ants can be found in California, Utah, Nevada and Texas into Mexico. Although the majority of the species found in our region frequent our deserts and foothills, they also exist in our coastal habitats.
Velvet Ants are visually stunning insects to happen upon in the field. Despite their "soft" appearance, these wasps have extremely hard exoskeletons enabling them to withstand the stings of many varieties of bees and wasps. Velvet Ants parasitize other ground dwelling wasp or bee nests. The female wasp spends much of her time on the ground searching for burrows in order to deposit her egg(s). Depending upon the species, the developing Velvet Ant brood will feed upon the larvae of the wasp or bee, or the stockpile of food left for the unsuspecting wasp or bee. In California, we have about 100 species of Mutillidae, most of which are nocturnal and live in our deserts. Adult Velvet Ants feed on nectar in the wild. At the Museum we feed them honey, bee pollen, grapes and fresh flowers.
The species pictured here and featured live in our exhibit, Natural Treasures: Past and Present, is Dasymutilla occidentalis, or Cow Killer. It can be found from New York to Florida and the Gulf states, west to Texas. This particular wasp gets its common name from its ability to fight ferociously and inflict a sting so severe that it is said to be able to kill a cow.
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