The velvet ant or Mutillidae is a family of wasps with more than 7,000 species. The females of this family don’t have wings and look like big, hairy ants. Their common name, velvet ant, comes from the thick pile of hair on their bodies. This hair is usually bright red or orange, but it can also be black, white, silver, or gold. Their bright colors act as signals to other animals.
The sting of the species Dasymutilla klugii is rated a 3 on the Schmidt pain index and can last up to 30 minutes. This is why the species Dasymutilla occidentalis is called the “cow killer” or ” velvet cow killer ant” in common language. But mutillids aren’t mean and only sting when they have to. So, are velvet ants dangerous? Also, their venom is not nearly as dangerous as that of honey bees or harvester ants. They don’t live in groups as real ants do; instead, they live alone.
What Do Velvet Ants Look Like?
All velvet ant species have a very sturdy exoskeleton. This quality has a dual purpose: it keeps them from drying out too quickly after entering their prey’s nest. The sexual dimorphism in mutillids is striking. Similar to certain other families in the Vespoidea, males in this genus have wings, but females do not. Because males and females look so different from one another, entomologists often need to catch a pair of insects in the act of mating to be sure they belong to the same species.
Similarly to the related family Thynnidae, males of some species lift the tiny female into the air and hold her there during mating. The only mutillids that can sting are the females, as is the case with all aculeates. The ovipositor, a modified female organ, is extremely long and flexible and serves as the stinger in mutillids. The stridulitrum on the metasoma allows both sexes to make a squeaking or chirping noise when threatened. Felt lines, which look like grooves with hair, can be found along the metasoma of both sexes of mutillids.
Unlike female mutillids, which have a completely joined pronotum and mesonotum, females of the only other vespoid families with felt lines (Bradynobaenidae and Chyphotidae) have a separate pronotum with a transverse suture separating it from the mesonotum. Myrmosidae members, once put a subfamily of mutillids, also lack felt lines in both sexes but have a distinctive pronotum in females.
Where Do Velvet Ants Live?
So, where are red velvet ants found? Mutillidae is found all over the world, and there are about 230 genera or subgenera and about 8,000 species. In southwest North America, there are more than 400 species.
The eight Müllerian mimicry rings of North American Mutillidae (Desert, Eastern, Madrean, Texan, Red-headed Timulla, Black-headed Timulla, Tropical, and Western) are different in how they look and where they live.
Together, they make up one of the largest Müllerian mimicry complexes on the planet. Instead of a common phylogenetic history, these mimicry rings are due to the convergent evolution of aposematic traits among velvet ant species that live in the same area. Because different species of velvet ants in the same ring have different aposematic traits, local predators have learned to stay away from this well-protected species.
Velvet Ant Behavior
The adults of these bugs eat nectar. Some species only come out at night, but females are usually active during the day. Tricholabiodes thisbe females that can be out and about up to two hours before sunset. Guido Nonveiller proposed in 1963 that most Mutillidae are stenothermic and thermophilic. This means that they don’t avoid light but are active when temperatures are high, which is usually after sunset.
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Predation is one of the most powerful ways that natural selection changes an organism’s shape, function, and behavior. During this coevolution, the prey either got eaten by the predator or got away. This has led to a lot of great defenses in prey species that make it more likely that they will get away.
Velvet ants protect themselves from being eaten by using a poisonous sting (if the ant is female), aposematic coloring, a stridulatory organ in their abdomen, an alarm secretion from their mandibular gland, and a tough exoskeleton. Because they have so many ways to protect themselves, velvet ants have been called “the indestructible insect.” This name is there to velvet ants after experiments with velvet ants and their possible predators. The ants were able to surive, but the predators eventually didn’t bother them.
No one knows what is in the poison that velvet ants shoot out of their stingers. One researcher said that the sting of Dasymutilla klugii was the most painful of the 58 species of stinging insects that were tested. This researcher came to the conclusion other species that had a more painful sting were the bullet ant, the warrior wasp, Pepsis spp., and Hemipepsis spp (tarantula hawks).
In an experiment, only two types of lizards attack a velvet ant. In both cases, velvet ants were moving quickly from side to side and up and down to avoid attack. After the attack, the velvet ants would sting the lizards right away. Both times, the ants ran away and didn’t return for the rest of the trial. After 24 hours, the side-blotched lizard was found dead in its tank. The side-blotched lizard eats velvet ants on its own, but the whiptail doesn’t.
FAQs: Velvet Ant
What Are Velvet Ants?
They look like big hairy ants, but velvet ants are actually wasps. The difference between their thorax and abdomen isn’t as tight as it is in ants, and their antennae are straight instead of bent. They can be seen on lawns or in fields, and sometimes they even get into buildings.
How Venomous Are Velvet Ants?
They are called “cow killers” because they can hurt you very badly if you touch them or step on them. So far as we know, a sting has never killed a cow. The velvet ant sting may hurt, but the poison is not very dangerous.
How Painful Is A Velvet Ant?
A velvet ant uses a stinger that is up to half the length of its body to defend itself. On a scale from 0 to 4, the Pain Scale for Stinging Insects rates how painful an insect sting is.
Can You Touch A Velvet Ant?
Males look more like “normal” wasps. Most of the time, velvet ants move very quickly on the ground. Don’t try to touch them. Velvet ants aren’t mean, but if you hold them or step on them with bare feet, they will sting.
What Happens If You Get Stung By A Velvet Ant?
A velvet ant sting’s pain is due to histamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. The sting of a velvet ant is very painful and causes redness and swelling in the area where it hit. There are no reports of anaphylaxis by a velvet ant sting, but it is theoretically possible.
Do Velvet Ants Fly?
Male red velvet ants have wings that let them fly, but females don’t. Also, males don’t have stingers, so you should be most careful of the ground-dwelling females.
How Long Does A Velvet Ant Sting Last?
The name “Cow Killer” comes from the fact that the sting of this red-and-black insect can cause terrible pain for up to 30 minutes.
What Does A Velvet Ant Eat?
Cow killers are 15–25 mm (0.6–1 in) long and are the largest velvet ant species. The females are a bit bigger than the males. Velvet Cowkiller ants eat mostly nectar as adults, but they will also eat insect larvae and adults, like flies, beetles, bees, and other wasps. All velvet ants you see walking on the sand are females.
How Big Is A Velvet Ant?
The red velvet ant is about 3/4 of an inch long and is the largest velvet-ant species. They are mostly black, but their chests and bellies have patches of thick orange-red hair. Males are the same as females but have wings and can’t sting.
Do Velvet Ants Have Nests?
Velvet ants are wasps, not ants, and they don’t make nests. Females don’t have wings and can sting very painfully. When someone scares them, both male and female velvet ants make a sound like a squeak or a chirp.
Can You Keep A Red Velvet Ant As A Pet?
The pet velvet ant is a beautiful wasp without wings that can sting very hard. Not a good idea for kids to have pets. So, watch out!
Parvaiz Yousuf is a senior SEO writer and editor with an experience of over 6 years, who also doubles up as a researcher. With an MSc zoology degree under his belt and possessing complete Search Engine Optimization (SEO) knowledge, he works as a science journalist for a US-based website and Asian Scientist (A Singapore-based magazine). He also works as Director of Wetland Research Centre, Wildlife Conservation Fund YPJK since 2018. Besides, he has several publications to his name on cancer biology and biochemistry in some reputed journals such as Nature & International Journal of Molecular Sciences, & magazines such as Science Reporter, BUCEROS BNHS, and has an abiding interest in ornithology. He also worked as a Research Associate for JK Policy Institute.