Small Velvet Ant

2012 October 13

I found this little ant-like creature on the road while pushing my bike up the hill. She caught my eye because she didn’t look quite right for an ant. For one thing, she was redder than other local ants I’ve seen. For another, thing, her head and abdomen didn’t quite look right to be a local ant (the head was too broad, and the abdomen too conical). And for a third thing, she was pacing along in a fairly deliberate manner, and not scurrying in a random-walk pattern the way that individual ants usually do.

Rather surprisingly (to me), she looks to be a small “Velvet Ant”, specifically Pseudomethoca frigida. This was surprising because I thought that velvet ants were an exclusively southern family, and were never found as far north as Michigan. And yet, here she is! Of course, now that I look them up, I see that this particular species is one of maybe two or three velvet ant species that range fairly far north.

Velvet ants aren’t actually ants. They are a family of wasps where the females are wingless (the males are winged, and look so different that a casual observer would probably not recognize a male/female pair as being in the same family, let alone the same species).

This particular specimen is one of the smaller species, at about 4-5 mm long, and doesn’t have the lush body fuzz that gives the “velvet ant” family their common name. Some of the more-southern species are quite a lot bigger, and so red and fuzzy that they look almost like some sort of plush toy.

I had a lot of trouble getting her to face me, so I’m afraid this is the best picture I could get of her mandibles. She doesn’t have the massive chewing mandibles of a lot of other wasps, probably because she isn’t going to spend her time rounding up and masticating food to give to her offspring.

Instead, she’s going to prowl around until she finds a nest of ground-nesting bees or wasps[1], slip inside, and lay her eggs on the developing grubs she finds. Unlike a lot of other kleptoparasites, she doesn’t necessarily go after solitary nesters, but will evidently tough it out with whole colonies of bumblebees and yellowjackets and the like. The bigger species of velvet ant are supposed to have such tough hides that the nest defenders have difficulty stinging them, and they just force their way right in even if they are spotted by defenders. But I think this little one is more likely to try to sneak in unnoticed.

Some of the bigger velvet ants have the common name “Cow Killer”, because they have excruciatingly painful stings, and people joke about it being painful enough to kill a cow[2]. I don’t know how painful this one might have been, as she didn’t sting me. Although, she did tend to point her abdomen at my camera quite a bit, so it is possible she intended to sting me.

Although, given her size, I doubt that her sting would have been any worse than what one might get from a “sweat bee” or maybe an individual fire ant.

[1] Or ants, maybe? All the references I find say that they go after bee and wasp nests, but those references are mostly talking about the bigger velvet ant species, not these little ones. Given her small size, it seems like she could easily raid, say, carpenter ant nests. I’m not seeing any mention of whether small velvet ants actually parasitize ants or not, though.

[2] Just to be clear, here, they don’t actually kill cows.

5 Responses
  1. October 13, 2012

    The ant was pushing your bike up the hill? Well, well, well. So it finally comes out. Your fascination with insects is just a plan to control them for some nefarious purpose. I should have known.

    Also, I think she needs a bath. She’s filthy. What kind of working conditions do you provide for your arthropodic minions, anyway?

  2. October 13, 2012

    I like that word “kleptoparasite”.

    I looked it up and I was disappointed to find that you hadn’t made it up and that it was a valid word.

    What does Wiki say about what this word means?

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Kleptoparasitism or cleptoparasitism (literally, parasitism by theft) is a form of feeding in which one animal takes prey or other food from another that has caught, collected, or otherwise prepared the food, including stored food (as in the case of cuckoo bees, which lay their eggs on the pollen masses made by other bees). The term is also used to describe the stealing of nest material or other inanimate objects from one animal by another.

    So the bug is lazy or smart or both and simply doesn’t bother to do the parenting work and uses the life energies of other folks to bring up the brood.

    Now what about your ant or bee or both?

    Bees and wasps
    There are many different lineages of cuckoo bees, all of which lay their eggs in the nest cells of other bees. There is also a family of cuckoo wasps, many of which lay their eggs in the nests of potter and mud dauber wasps; many other lineages of wasps in various families have evolved similar habits. These insects are normally referred to as “kleptoparasites,” rather than as “brood parasites.” The distinction is that the term “brood parasite” is generally restricted to cases where the immature parasite is fed directly by the adult of the host, and raised as the host’s offspring (as is common in birds). Such cases are rare in bees and wasps, which tend to provide all of the food for the larva before the egg is laid; in only a few exceptional cases (such as parasitic bumblebees) will a bee or wasp female feed a larva that is not her own species. The difference is only in the nature of the interaction by which the transfer of resources occurs (tricking a host into handing over food rather than stealing it by force or stealth), which is why brood parasitism is considered a special form of kleptoparasitism.

    There is a great deal of chatter trying to distinguish the kleptomaniacs from the brooders but the main difference seems to be way that the feeding done.

    The host parents do not feed the interloper bug brood in kleptoparasites.

    I could not check up on your assertion that this ant or wasp dumped her babes on the larvae of the host (whatever they were) in this Wiki article and so I had to go look up more references.
    I feel very virtuous. This unnecessary work (because I do not want to do younger boy’s science notes) is all in an effort to make sure you are using original source material and not just inventing pie in the sky entomological details for the sake of entertainment.

    So what was I going to look for?

    Hmm.. larvae victims for the ant or wasp you are nattering about in this post.

    Let me look on a non-Wiki blog.

    I found an article here but I have to simply rely on the abstract as I don’t want to pay for the whole meal deal:

    Cuckoo bees and velvet ants use different resources of their shared host bees, the former laying eggs on the host pollen stores and the latter on immature stages. We studied the activity patterns of the cuckoo bee Sphecodes monilicornis and the velvet ant Myrmilla capitata at two nesting sites of their host, the social digger bee Lasioglossum malachurum, over a 3 year period. Due to the difference in host exploitation, we expected different temporal patterns of the two natural enemies as well as a positive spatial association with host nest density for both species. At a daily level, S. monilicornis was more abundant between 10.00 and 15.00 h, while M. capitata was most active in the early morning and late afternoon; both species activities were independent from host provisioning activity. The activity of cuckoo bees was in general positively correlated with the density of open host nests (but not with the total number of nests), while that of velvet ants was rarely correlated with this factor. Sphecodes monilicornis was seen both attacking the guard bees and directly entering into the host nests or digging close to nest entrances, while M. capitata only gained access to host nests through digging. We conclude that the temporal and spatial segregation between the two species may be, at least partially, explained both by the different resources exploited and by the different dynamics of host interactions.


    Why these poor people would study their host bugs for three years to be elucidated in a minor fashion like this is fairly typical for all scientific work where the poor sod in research basically bashes his or her head against a subject for years and gets piddly research results that in general mean nothing and add very little to the history and larder of science (but if you are lucky or capable you might get more then piddly research).

    What did these poor researchers find out?

    I’m not sure. They are speaking entomologisms and so all I could figure out was that they compared two bugs that use bees for their baby hosts.

    The bee they usurp for their nefarious baby rearing practices, is given a fancy name –eusocial sweat bee—and not content disparaging the poor host bee in this way the entomologist that named this bee gives it more damaging terms of reference—calling it —Lasioglossum malachurum (Hymenoptera: Halictidae, Mutillidae).

    I thought bacteriology was insane enough with its terminology and yet I find that entomologists love long names even more than bacteriologists and here we have terminology gone insane in the service of disparaging a host bee.

    But the parasitic bees.
    What was their story?

    One of them –the cuckoo bees use the pollen stores of the host (who knew that the poor host bee has pollen stores? I just thought they made honey and ate that but there you go, you realize only how ignorant you are when you find out these matters on blogs like yours –but of course you did not mention pollen stores, these research folks did).

    The other bug -your velvet ants which you say are wasps (so why did you say it was an ant n the first place when it is really a wasp? Is this to confuse us?)

    I go check on your information yet again. Thankfully you have given us the link so I don’t have to hurt my head looking up the information.

    Kingdom Animalia (Animals)
    Phylum Arthropoda (Arthropods)
    Class Insecta (Insects)
    Order Hymenoptera (Ants, Bees, Wasps and Sawflies)
    No Taxon (Aculeata – Bees, Ants, and Stinging Wasps)
    Superfamily Vespoidea (Ants, Stinging Wasps, and Hornets)
    Family Mutillidae (Velvet Ants)
    Genus Pseudomethoca
    Species frigida (Pseudomethoca frigida)

    So apparently the ant you depict looks like the less descriptive reference ants on this link.
    And no explanation is given why it is called a Velvet ant when you say it is really a wasp.

    Really the logic of entomologists defeat me. You don’t get bacteriologists confusing viruses, bacteria and fungi do you? So why call a wasp an ant?

    I am very tired now. It is exhausting checking up and expanding your posts (in order to avoid doing grade 9 science notes) but I want to understand your post in a very extrapolated way. I know I could just understand them in the truncated fashion you have provided but I don’t want to do this.

    I go to the link on the “Wanderers on the Sand –the Velvet Ants” that you have so kindly provided knowing possibly that I want more information. At times like this I am grateful for your perspicacious handling of information sources for readers. This morning I have been tortured by Catherine, my yoga instructor and therefore I cannot navigate the WWW with any felicity at this moment other than to click on your links.

    So I look at the blurb at the link you have given us and I finally have a semblance of a reason why dotty entomologists called this wasp an ant:

    The velvet ants too, are also members of this group of sand-inhabiting insects, and may be noticed as they walk busily over the sand surface. Although appearing superficially like true ants, closer scrutiny shows them to be more “compact” in appearance and to possess a fine coating of hair over the body (Fig. 1). Often they are brightly colored in combinations of red, black, or yellow. The common name is given because of the resemblance to ants and the velvet-like covering of hair.


    So this wasp is called an ant just because it looks like an ant but really it doesn’t fit the criminal profile for an ant being compact and hairy and as you mentioned rather unzigzag like in locomotion patterns so they are wasps.

    What else does this link tell me?

    Their compactness of appearance is the result of fusion of body regions and strong development of the exoskeleton. Each insect is in effect surrounded by armor plate which prevents water loss and affords protection from predators as well; mouth parts of most insects are simply not massive enough to penetrate the body wall of a velvet ant. As an even more formidable defense mechanism the insect possesses a sting which, because of its length and maneuverability, may be directed at a considerable angle from the abdomen. Although its major function may not be a defensive one, an acknowledgment of the sting’s effectiveness as a weapon is apparent in another common name for the velvet ants: The “cow killers.” The bright color pattern on the body wall may well serve as advertisement to potential predators that an unpleasant experience is in store if a velvet ant is dealt with carelessly


    This part says what you said but less mellifluously (yes, I am flattering you because I know I am writing my own post here instead of a minute comment.)

    The bug seems to be an armored tank that goes into the poor host colony rather like the bullies of the governments do in some countries (think Canada) and like the Chinese dictators did when they wanted to break up the uprisings of 1989 when they sent their tanks into the crowds of ordinary Chinese protestors at Tiananmen Square.

    The sting sounds horrible and the ant/wasp seems to be a fencing opponent worth avoiding with its ability to dance around (here they speak of his Musketeering ability —- this little fencer has good “maneuverability,” and the longish prong “may be directed at a considerable angle from the abdomen”.

    This was a fun link as they speak about the unattractiveness of the female wasp. The female mates and it is then game over, she has no sex appeal anymore for the males in the vicinity:

    How males locate females is not known precisely; vision may play a part but there is probably also an odor response to mating pheromones produced by females (one method of collecting males is to hold a female above the ground in a forceps–several males may then fly in and circle the captive insect). Once a male locates an appropriate female, there is a brief mating after which the female continues her wandering. A mated female apparently soon loses her attractiveness to males, each must locate the burrow of a solitary wasp or bee, a task made difficult by the host’s usually having covered up the nest entrance. In this hunting activity, velvet ants give the impression of extreme persistence as they walk over the sand, investigating every surface irregularity and constantly tapping objects with their antennae.

    Now if this were only true of male and female human pair bonding think how interesting this would prove to be in terms of romantic follies and long term arrangements in our society!The GNP of each country would probably go up dramatically. Or maybe not.

    But certainly it makes parenting less stressful.
    Possibly if we had the same sort of mating deal we would also be able to do a lot more writing as poets.

    In any case, the female is left to wander off and no other males molest her unlike the situation with the poor Mallard female ducks at the marsh near my home who are assaulted by every male duck in the vicinity at mating season.

    Sometimes they are even seen ganging up on the females near the signage at the entrance to our community and it gives our neighborhood a slightly unsavory aspect to it as right by “Welcome to our Community” sign you see happy rapine scene of say a battered female duck and two males bashing up on her.

    But the duck mating situation at the marsh is another post.

    I will concentrate now.

    The ant/wasp. In the previously mentioned abstract they spoke of the cuckoo bee sword fighting her way into the host burrow. The velvet ant is more mellow and simply digs in and because she is a tank, shrugs off the clambering host and keeps on trucking. Here they emphasize the calm, inscrutable manner of mummy ant as she goes right to the host babies, checks they are at the right stage for her purposes and lays one egg per cocoon spot.

    Once a burrow of a suitable host species is found, the velvet ant digs it open. Sometimes the burrow will still be active, and defended by an irate bee or wasp. Little physical damage is done to the well protected velvet ant in this case, although she may be removed some distance from the nest entrance in the struggle that ensues, straying off away from the nest. Once the mutillid has opened the nest or has pushed herself past a defender, she crawls in, investigates the nest cells, and locates those immature solitaries that are in the pupal or prepupal stage of development. The sting may be used at this point, serving to paralyze and possibly to arrest development of each host in its cocoon. A single egg is deposited in each cocoon located, and the female departs to continue her hunting.


    She is very frugal and lays one egg per “pupal or prepupal stage” of host baby.
    Apparently she is kind enough to paralyze the host sometimes so that the host baby can’t do anything about being live victuals for the ant baby.
    The velvet ant babies hatch, eat the host babies and are adults ASAP.
    This is very efficient child rearing.
    Why can’t human beings be like Velvet ants and be similarly smart?

    P.S. I have to agree with K T Cat.

    The ant or wasp is filthy.

    Why don’t you wash the specimen you are photographing so we can appreciate her without her swagger and sand?

    She also looks exhausted. I hope you are keeping to the mandated work hours for ants in your part of the country.

  3. Carole permalink
    October 13, 2012

    Didn’t realize there were other velvet ants. Here in Florida the Red Velvet Ant known as the Cow killer is common.

  4. October 13, 2012

    “Kleptoparasite” is my new Favorite Word. I can think of several humanoid social and/or political situations where it would be most appropriate.

  5. October 15, 2012

    KT: Ha ha. Very funny.

    Anne, Julie: I agree. “Kleptoparasite” is a great word, and should be dropped into casual conversation whenever possible.

    Carole: I was surprised to find out just how diverse the velvet ants are, too. Finding one up here makes me think that I should also look harder for other insects that I think of as being associated with warm climates, like woodland roaches.

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