When is an Ant not an Ant?

In the heat of the summer, you may come across some colorful creepy crawlies out and about. One in particular has a very misleading name, the velvet ant. Common in fields and on dirt roads, these colorful ‘ants’ aren’t actually ants at all; instead they are wingless female wasps in the insect family Mutillidae. Like their name suggests, they have a velvety, ant like appearance. They can be half an inch to an inch long, and are usually brightly colored in shades of red, orange, or white mixed with black, making them easy to spot. However, spot is all you should do with these wasps. Those bright colors don’t mean come touch me, but stay away!

Bright colors are used by many insects to tell potential predators that they either taste bad or can bite/ sting, referred to as aposematic coloration. The velvet ant is bright red because she can sting, and her sting is something you don’t forget if you are unfortunate enough to experience it. Velvet ants are sometimes called ‘cow killers,’ and although they can’t actually kill a cow, the name should suggest that their sting is not pleasant.

Velvet ants are not aggressive and only sting when grabbed or stepped on. They would much rather run away from you. The females actively search for digger bee and wasp nests to lay their eggs in, making them a type of parasitic wasp. If you come across one, enjoy getting to see a pretty wasp…just don’t touch!