Velvet Ants (KQED Perspective aired June 05)
By Michael Ellis
When I was a kid in East Tennessee, I saw them but not often. Bright fuzzy red blobs jerkily moving along the ground. When we put a stick on them and gently squished them they make a loud squeaking sound. But I never killed them; I thought they were way too cool. We called them “cow killers”. This formidable name was because of their “supposed” powerful stings. I say supposed because no one I knew ever got stung by one and there has never been a cow killed by one. The official name is velvet ants. But they are not really ants they are wingless female wasps.
In the hotter portions of the San Francisco Bay area we have yellowish colored velvet ants. Watch for them in the East Bay hills, in the Napa Valley or on Mt. Hamilton. These flaming females spend their summer days searching for sweet flower nectar.
They have an extremely tough exoskeleton and the ability to pack a wallop with their stinger over and over again. This protects them from birds and other predators like little boys. Incidentally the stingers are quite versatile and can be used in many different angles. Their bright colors are a clear and unmistakable visual signal to leave them alone!
The males are slightly smaller, drabber and have wings. To my knowledge I have never seen one. Their lifetimes are much shorter than the females.
The flying males spend the summer eating nectar and searching for mates. I read in one account that they literally sweep the females off their feet, copulate in midair and drop them back down to earth presumably gravid, that is – full of fertilized eggs. Members of the mile high club to be sure.
The female velvet ant enters the nest of another wasp or bumble bee and lays her eggs right on their larvae. They repeatedly sting the intruder but her hard skin protects her. The eggs hatch and the larvae of the cow killers kill and feed on the larvae of the host. Young velvet ants both winged males and flightless females emerge in the spring and the cycle begins anew.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective