Posted by Gerry Weitz
Did I just see a piece of fuzz run across the desert sand?
What’s white with 2 puffs of fuzz, 6 legs, 2 antennae, and squeaks when disturbed? Did I mention the powerful and painful sting?
White Velvet Ants
This female White Velvet Ant isn’t an ant at all…..she’s a wasp! Velvet ants look like big hairy ants but they’re actually solitary living wasps. The female has no wings and so, sad to say, she cannot fly but she sure can move fast. Thistledown Velvet Ants blend in with the creosote bush because of their white hair which mimics the fuzzy “fruits” of the creosote.
White Velvet Ant Habitat and Other Species
A noticeable difference between 2 white velvet ants, the Dasymutilla sackenii and Dasymutilla gloriosa, is in the amount of hair they have; the sackenii has a fuller body of hair whereas the gloriosa’s hair looks a little scraggly and also the sackenii’s legs are a shiny black, but the gloriosa’s legs have white hairs on them.
Female Velvet Ant (Wingless Wasp)
The velvet ant belongs to the Mutillidae, a family of more than 3000 species of wasp whose wingless females resemble ants. California has about a 100 species of Multillidae. In the desert, the white velvet ant spends it’s time on the creosote bush where it hides between the fuzzy seeds. Velvet Ants are 1/4 to one inch in length, depending on the species with very few predators because of their hard, armor-like exoskeleton, and their painful sting.
Wining, Dining, and Mating Among Velvet Ants
Velvet ants, like other wasps and bees feed on nectar. Unlike the female velvet ant, males have wings but no stingers. The male velvet ant will fly low to the ground looking for females. When mating, the female makes a squeaking sound by rubbing one abdominal segment against another. Both will squeak when frightened. It’s the female who is responsible for finding a home for her eggs to hatch but she is sneaky and resourceful and will lay her eggs in another ground wasp or bee’s nest where they will hatch and feed on the bee’s or wasp larvae.
Red Velvet Ant – A.K.A. Cow Killer
Another velvet ant is the red velvet ant and although both the white and the red velvet ant have powerful stings, it’s the red velvet ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) that has been nicknamed “Cow Killer.” It may hurt, but it doesn’t kill. In humans, if stung, it is said to hurt “like you know what” for a good 20 minutes. The red velvet ant can be found in the eastern and southern states and west to Texas.
What’s age got to do with it? Velvet Ant vs. Creosote
The creosote is as old as the desert itself; Carbon-14 dates have established the germination of creosote seeds during the wet years following the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. In the Dominican Republic, velvet ants were found incased in 25 to 40 million year old amber. That makes the velvet ant older of the two but one can imagine the white velvet ant thousands of years ago, scurrying across the desert floor and up on the creosote eating nectar from the creosote’s yellow flowers.
Creosote Bush “Little Smelly One”
The creosote is a native chaparral plant that grows in desert areas throughout the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. The Mexican People refer to the creosote as “little smelly one” because of its stinky aroma. Creosote has a long history of medicinal properties utilized by the Desert Indians and the Mexican People. Indigenous people used the creosote to relieve cold and flu symptoms; diabetes and arthritis; a poultice for open wounds, and to treat infections, plus many more ailments.
Creosote a Home for Wildlife
Besides the White Velvet Ant, the Creosote is an important desert plant for wildlife. Tortoises find shelter under the creosote bush where the roots stabilize the soil; reptiles find respite from the hot desert sun; desert woodrats enjoy the foliage, and many other small mammals use if for cover and as a food source.
Next time you’re driving through the desert, take a look at the plant life and if you come upon a creosote bush and decide to pick the flowers, be careful where you reach because one of those fuzzy “fruits” might be a white, female velvet ant!
White Velvet Ant Video
The video is of a white velvet ant (Dasymutilla sackenii) scurrying across the desert floor.
Hearts Pest Management is committed to the conservation and preservation of our natural resources. As a leader in organic pest control methods for Southern California, Hearts Pest Management provides a conscious, cycle of life, pest management approach for our customers.
Article and Art by Donna Walker
Note: Special permission was obtained from each photographer to display photos.
Velvet Ant and Creosote References:
Schoenherr,Allan A. 1991. A Natural History of California. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Farnsworth, Kahanah, 2005. A Taste of Nature, Patterson Printing.
Exploring the Southwest DesertUSA – Velvet Ants
Wikipedia – Dasymutilla occidentalis