The panda ant

November 28, 2013 • 1:48 pm

Well, it’s not really an ant but a wasp—a wasp in the hymenopteran family Multillidae, also called—for obvious reasons—”velvet ants.” (Ants and wasps are fairly closely related; in fact, ants evolved from early wasps.)

In these wasps the females are wingless and the males winged, and their colors and patterns are aposematic: that is, they are “warning” patterns that tell predators to stay away. Predators presumably learn these patterns readily, for velvet wasps have extremely painful stings.

But isn’t this a cute little girl?

Picture 1
From One Big Photo, with the big photo taken by Chris Lukhaup.

I’m not an expert on this group (or any group of insects save Drosophila), but Wikipedia notes this:

They exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism; the males and females are so different, it is almost impossible to associate the two sexes of a species unless they are captured while mating. In a few species, the male is so much larger than the female, he carries her aloft while mating, which is also seen in the related family Tiphiidae.

Here’s another view, from photo by DrSarahJensen via Flickr:


Velvet ants come in all sorts of striking colors and patterns, presumably aposematic; go here to see some.

h/t: Grania

15 thoughts on “The panda ant

    1. That makes two of us. Wow.

      This one also caught my eye. It cries out for a caption, but so far, I can’t think of one. Well, maybe. How about, “I may have left the hair bleach in too long”?

    2. I don’t know, but there was this comment at the original site:
      “The BLUE VELVET ANT IS A FAKE! It’s a well-known colorized version. Note that the black parts have a bluish tint, a classic PhotoShop tell. Please change your text to reflect this.”

  1. They have tiny little eyes too, I guess they don’t need big eyes if they can’t fly. I wonder how they live and why they don’t need wings.

    1. As far as known, they are all “home invaders” to ground nesting bees and wasps. Females enter nests to lay eggs on/near larvae of the hosts.

      At least the soil-nesting solitary bees tend to cluster their nests in suitable soil, so the wingless female mutillids are likely to find new prey near their natal burrows. Males do fly as noted above.

      Really neat insects, rare in the Pacific Northwest where I reside. But once saw two different species in one afternoon in extreme se Oregon.

  2. Thanks especially for the link to the different velvet ants. I did not know about the blue one. I used to collect quite a few of the big orange and black ones when I was an insect collector. When in the killing jar I would see them stinging the paper wadding in the jar. The stinger was a substantial % of their body length, and it could bend from side to side. This is why they are called ‘cow killers’.
    When one mounts an insect, the standard method is to push these special steel ‘insect pins’ through the thorax. But in the velvet ant that is very difficult as their cuticle is freakishly hard.
    As for other aspects of their biology, they are external parasites of ground nesting bees like bumble bees.

  3. Very interesting look.

    I am familiar with the Red Velvet Ants we have here in Oklahoma. I have only seen a few in real life, but they do have a striking appearance.

  4. “the male is so much larger than the female, he carries her aloft while mating, which is also seen in the related family Tiphiidae”

    So that’s what that little voice in the backyard keeps singing about:
    “Your love, liftin’ me higher
    Than I’ve ever been lifted before”

  5. That link is fascinating.

    “The female mud daubers don’t just lay an egg on the ground and fly away. […] The wasps […] find a victim to paralyze, bring it to their nest […]. When the egg hatches, the wasp larva can attack its helpless roommate.”

    Ah, the beauty of God’s wonderful creation…

  6. I have first hand experience with the velvet ant as I was stung by one at the age of 9. The pain was incredible. My next encounter some months later was a red velvet ant that I stomped on with all my might and it got up and walked away, testament to how hard the cuticle is as Mark noted.

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