This week we meet one of the most beautiful of all insects found in Maryland, the velvet ant. This remarkable insect is not an ant at all. It is a wasp and more closely related to the tiphiid wasp that attacks Japanese beetle grubs such as the one we met in
“Roses beware Japanese beetles are in the air, Popillia japonica” on July 11, 2005 than the ants we visited in “Field ants to the rescue- Formica sp.” on May 15, 2006. The velvet ant for this episode of bug of the week was discovered in the sandy soils of Pasadena, Maryland.
Although she lacks wings, she is no slow poke. The female velvet ant can run like a demon. She searches for a nest of unsuspecting bumble bees. Her powerful jaws and fearsome stinger probably allow her to fight her way past bumble bee defenders and enter the brood chamber of the bee hive. In the brood chamber bumble bee larvae are nourished and cared for by bumble bee workers. The velvet ant lays a single egg on or near the bumble bee babes. This egg hatches into a velvet ant larva that consumes the developing bee. When it has completed its development, the larva forms a pupa and later emerges as an adult velvet ant. Male velvet ants wave wings that are shiny and jet black. The winged males fly about in search of food such as flower nectar and pollen, and mates. The lovely female velvet ant in this bug of the week emitted a clearly audible squeaking sound when she was captured. Squeaking is accomplished by rubbing one part of the body against another. What purpose does the squeaking serve? Along with the bright red and black coloration, the loud squeak probably serves as a warning to any would-be predator that this beauty packs a punch.
You see, the other common name for the velvet ant is “cow killer.” When I grabbed this one with a pair of forceps, an enormous, angry stinger was thrust out of the tip of her abdomen in search of something to punish. Some say that the sting of a velvet ant is strong enough to kill a cow. While this surely never happened, people stung by the velvet ant report that it was memorable indeed.
A special thanks to brave Jennifer from Pasadena for capturing the wonderful velvet ant for this bug of the week. To learn more about velvet ants, please visit the following web sites.