Velvet ants are not ants – they are wasps! When seen scurrying around open areas on the ground, velvet ants do indeed look like hairy ants. However, these wasps lack the angled or elbowed antennae of ants and only have a slight constriction between the thorax and abdomen.
The velvet ant family (Mutillidae) contains thousands of species. Velvet ants are brightly colored in patterns including red, orange, black, white and yellow. There are large variations between the different species and even within the same species depending on habitat and diet.
Male velvet ants have two pairs of transparent black wings. Females are wingless. Both sexes tend to have hairy bodies. Between the sexes there is often considerable difference in color and body form making it difficult to recognize the males and females as members of the same species.
Velvet ants are predators of solitary bees and wasps that nest in the ground. The female moves rapidly across the open ground searching for the nests of its prey. When a nest is located the female digs into it and locates the pupae stages of the host. The female breaks into the cocoon and lays an egg. When the velvet ant egg hatches the grub-like larva eats the bee/wasp.
Velvet ants spend the winter as pupae in the tunnels of the nests of the hosts on which they have fed. In the late spring the adults emerge. Adults survive on nectar and pollen.
Although they are not aggressive and will flee when disturbed, the female does possess a stinger that can inflict a very painful, although not particularly toxic, sting. The males are stingless.
The pictured female velvet ant was running around in our barnyard (Modoc County CA) – I believe it is Dasymutilla vestita. I caught and photographed this velvet ant then released it. Velvet ants do no damage and are not particularly common so why kill this interesting insect?