The White Velvet Ant

Thursday October 2, 2014
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White Velvet Ants and the Creosote Bush

Did I just see a piece of fuzz run across the desert? What´s white with 2 puffs of fuzz, 6 legs, 2 antennae, and squeaks when disturbed? Did I mention the powerful and painful sting?

Thistledown White Velvet Ant on Coral Rocks

Thistledown White Velvet Ant on Coral Rocks

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.

Fuzzy Creosote

Creosote Bush – Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Velvet ant's fuzzy rear

The White Velvet ant’s fuzzy behind mimics the Creosote Bush seed.

White Velvet Ant Habitat and Other Velvet Ant 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.

Thistledown Velvet Ant

Thistledown Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla gloriosa) Female – Big Bend Ranch State Park, TX

Fuzzy white velvet ant

White Velvet Ants (Dasymutilla sackenii) have thicker hair and black legs

Female Velvet Ant (Wingless Wasp)

Velvet ants belong to the family Mutillidae, 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.

Mating Sounds and Behavior

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.

White Velvet Ant - Male

Male White Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla sackenii) Males have wings to fly around looking for females.

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’s sting may hurt but it doesn´t kill. 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 towards Texas.

Red Velvet Ant

Red Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) Cow Killer

Ants trapped in amber

These ants, trapped in amber, have features of both ants and wasps.

Velvet Ants and the Creosote Bush

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 Bush

Creosote Bush, Desert Hot Springs, CA – Spring Flowers

Creosotes provide cover for wildlife.

Creosotes provide cover for wildlife.

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 and reptiles find respite from the hot desert sun.

Desert Woodrats enjoy the foliage and many other small animals use it for cover as well as a source of food.

Flower Fruit/Seed or Fuzzy Wasp?

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!

Mt. Whitney, CA

Mt. Whitney, Lone Pine, CA

Top view of white velvet ant

The fuzz of the White Velvet Ant mimics the seeds on the creosote bush.

White Velvet Ant Video The video is of a white velvet ant (Dasymutilla sackenii) scurrying across the desert floor.

White Velvet Ant

White Velvet Ant

Pest Service with Heart

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.

The White Velvet Ant photos take by Steven Golisch, a service technician at Hearts are from a photo session he had when he came across the wasp in Ramona, CA. Steven, like all of our technicians, cares for the environment, and so – he set let this little fuzzy wasp free.

Article and Art by Donna WalkerVelvet 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.

San Diego Natural History Museum Field Guide – “Dasymutilla”

Exploring the Southwest DesertUSA – Velvet Ants Wikipedia – Dasymutilla occidentalis

white velvet ant

Photo shoot of the White Velvet Ant by Steven Golisch – Hearts Pest Management


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