Vibrant Velvet Ants
I have spent my whole life growing up and living in Southern California. As soon as I could crawl I was learning my naturalist skills, bugs, lizards, spiders, everything I could see I would pick up, inspect, and play with. Since I had been honing my skills as an animal connoisseur in the ecosystems of Southern California for a quarter century, I thought I knew everything. However, as always is with the natural world, you can never know everything. In fact, a lifetime of research will just barely scratch the surface. If you do your work properly, you will look into a puddle and unveil an ocean of questions.
One such example of my overconfident belief came last week when I prepared to post an article about ants, in which I included a number of images of “velvet ants.” Their common name referring to them as ants, their similarities in looks and behavior convinced me of their taxa. Just as I was about to post, I thought I might delineate the individual species, and did some research. These beautiful creatures are in fact, not ants at all. They are solitary female wingless wasps, scurrying about on the ground.
Wasps, and ants, are part of the same larger order: Hymenoptera. These are generally hive minded insects, although sometimes solitary, like these velvet ants, which belong to the family Mutillidae. This family has over 3000 species, most of which have the wingless females, that spur their tiny legs a million miles an hour over the scorching sands. As the females run below, winged males fly low to the ground searching for mates. When a female senses a potential mate she will let out a tiny squeak that calls him in.
After mating the male heads off, and the female is left with the full responsibility of laying the eggs. She may dig a burrow herself and lay the eggs in the cool ground below, or employ a much sneakier tactic. The females will go covert and sneak into hives of bees, or even other wasps. She will lay her eggs among the host's brood, and then zip out of dodge. Her eggs will develop quickly, and her babies hatch before the eggs of the host bees or wasps. Then the young velvet ants will feed on the host’s unhatched offspring and quickly run out, leaving carnage in their wake.
The male wasps do not have stingers, and are rather defenseless. However, because they can fly they have chances to escape predation. The females are better equipped, and have a long stinger protruding from the abdomen that contains a painful sting. It isn’t deadly, but will be more than uncomfortable for about twenty minutes. The wasps are often brightly colored, see the images of orange, red, and whitish yellow females throughout. This is known as aposematic coloration. The idea that you want to advertise yourself to predators and be seen, because you possess a threat. The bright color signals, don’t even try to eat me! Because I will hurt you! This tactic is used by monarch butterflies, poison dart frogs, anemones, and corals. Can you think of more?
Nature is never one sided, and sometimes the same bright coloration of these wasps is actually used for camouflage. Like many other insects in the order, they feed on nectar from plants. In Southern California, they often feed on coyote brush. The white velvet ants almost look identical to the flowers on coyote brush and this allows them to feed completely undetected.
I feel so lucky to be able to make new discoveries, and learn about my local wildlife. It never ceases to make me buzz with excitement when I see a new creature, behavior, or learn that velvet ants, who are actually wasps, squeak to potential loved ones! I encourage you to keep an eye out and always be open to learning. Comment with any new discoveries you have made!
Stunning photos by Alex Havasi.
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.