Velvet Ant Facts

Scientific Name: Mutillidae

Velvet Ant
Velvet Ant, Hidalgo County, New Mexico.

James Gerholdt / Getty Images

Velvet ants are part of class Insecta and are found worldwide. They get their name from the bright, fuzzy fur on their bodies. For example, Dasymutilla occidentalis (red velvet ant) is derived from the Greek root word meaning shaggy (dasy).

Fast Facts: Velvet Ants

  • Scientific Name: Mutillidae
  • Common Names: Velvet Ant
  • Order: Hymenoptera
  • Basic Animal Group: Invertebrate
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Black or brown bodies with bright red or orange velvety hair
  • Size: 0.25-0.8 inches
  • Diet: Bumblebee larvae, nectar
  • Habitat: Desert, meadows, fields, forest edges
  • Conservation Status: Not assessed
  • Fun Fact: Red velvet ants are often called cow killers because their stings were said to be powerful enough to kill a cow.

Description

Velvet ants are wasps that get their name from the velvety fur on their bodies and are not very aggressive. Females do not have wings and walk along the ground for food, while the males have transparent wings and look more like wasps. Females possess curved stingers that extend from the abdomen and can sting multiple times. In some species, such as cow killer ants, their stingers have venom. Although the venom is not particularly toxic, the sting will hurt. Males do not have stingers, but they do have pointed pseudo stingers.

Additionally, velvet ants have hard exoskeletons, and their bodies consist of a thorax and abdomen, both of which have short hairs. These ants are between 0.25 and 0.8 inches in size, and they have six legs and antenna.

Habitat and Distribution

Velvet ants are found worldwide. Some, like the red velvet ant, are mainly found throughout the U.S., but especially in dry regions. They gravitate towards open areas like fields, meadows, and even lawns. However, because velvet ants are parasitic, they will appear wherever their host species, such as bumblebees and wasps, live.

Diet and Behavior

Velvet Ant
Velvet Ant searching for prey.  rkhphoto/iStock/Getty Images

Adult velvet ants consume nectar and water from flowers like milkweed. They may also consume larvae and adult insects, such as flies and beetles. Young velvet ants eat the body of their host as well as its larvae or cocoons. Females are most often found scurrying along the ground looking for nests of host species, while males are found on flowers.

Velvet ants are relatively solitary creatures and are most active at dusk/night. These wasps are not normally aggressive and will not sting unless aggravated. Males and females can make squeaking sounds by rubbing abdominal segments against each other as a warning sign or when trapped. As parasites, they attack bumblebee nests, other kinds of wasp nests, and even fly and beetle nests to implant their eggs into them. While females spend most of their time searching for any sign of nests, males are usually spotted flying above the ground in search of a mate.

Reproduction and Offspring

Males fly close to the ground in search of potential mates and try to detect pheromones the females secrete. After mating, and to ensure the survival of her offspring, females search for and infiltrate ground nests of bumblebees and wasps to lay their eggs. Once a suitable host is located, the female lays her one to two eggs in the host's larvae. She chooses larvae that have completed feeding and are ready for pupation by cutting through the cocoon and laying her eggs inside. The young will then grow and emerge from the host. The young eat their host, spend the winter in cocoons they spin within the case of the host, and emerge as adults in late spring. From the time they hatch, these young are on their own. One generation of velvet ants per female is likely produced each year.

Species

Velvet Ant
Velvet Ant.  fitopardo.com/Moment/Getty Images

Insects in the family Mutillidae are considered velvet ants due to the similar salient features of the females—wingless and with velvety fur. About 8,000 species have been reported worldwide in the family Mutillidae, with 435 species located in the southern and western parts of North America. The most common species in this family is Dasymutilla occidentalis, which is known as the cow killer. Depending on the location, different species will have different sizes of males and females. In most species, the males are typically larger than the females, but six species found in Florida have similar sizes between males and females.

Conservation Status

Velvet ants have not been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are not considered pests because they rarely invade homes.

Sources

  • "Cow Killer (Dasymutilla Occidentalis)". Insect Identification, 2019, https://www.insectidentification.org/insect-description.asp?identification=Cow-Killer.
  • "Cowkiller Velvet Ant". Aquarium Of The Pacific, 2019, http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/onlinelearningcenter/species/cowkiller_velvet_ant.
  • "Mutillidae - Velvet Ants". Featured Creatures, 2019, https://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/wasps/mutillidae.htm.
  • "Velvet Ant | Insect". Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/animal/velvet-ant.
  • "Velvet Ants". Insects In The City, 2019, https://citybugs.tamu.edu/factsheets/biting-stinging/wasps/ent-3004/.
  • "Velvet Ants, A.K.A Cow Killers Ants". Pestworld.Org, 2019, https://www.pestworld.org/pest-guide/stinging-insects/velvet-ants-cow-killers/.