Velvet ants share warning signals with the neighbours | @GrrlScientist (2022)

A team of American scientists report they’ve discovered of one of the world’s largest complexes of mimics, New World velvet ants. These brilliantly-coloured insects produce an intensely painful venom, yet neighbouring species still resemble each other so closely that they are barely distinguishable, an unusual trait known as Müllerian mimicry.

Warning signals are directed at specific predators

Aposematism is an evolutionary phenomenon that is more commonly known as a “warning signal”. Aposematic signals are actually beneficial for both predator and prey, because both rely upon them to avoid potential harm. For this reason, warning signals are directed at a specific type of predator and are intended to prevent attack by advertising the bearer’s unpalatability or noxiousness.

There are a variety of warning signals, including conspicuous colours or colour patterns, sounds, odours or other traits that are difficult for would-be predators to overlook. Some types of warning signals appeal more strongly to the senses of one sort of predator than to another. For example, a visual warning, such as brilliant colouring, appeals more strongly to a bird than to a nocturnal colour-blind mammal. Since warning signals are such an effective anti-predator system, other creatures that share the same predators may also mimic them.

There are two forms of mimicry. The first form, which is better studied, is known as Batesian mimicry. Batesian mimics are harmless species that evolve similar warning signals as those of a noxious species so would-be predators are deceived into avoiding them. Basically, they are cheaters. Generally, Batesian mimics are close relatives. This phenomenon was discovered by the English naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, whilst studying butterflies in the rainforests of Brazil.

The second form, discovered by the German naturalist, Fritz Müller, is Müllerian mimicry. This is a system where two or more noxious species that share predators also mimic each other’s warning signals. Müllerian mimics may or may not be closely related, and this phenomenon is less common in nature than is than Batesian mimicry.

Velvet ants form one of the largest known Müllerian mimicry rings

Velvet ants are members of Hymenoptera (the wasps, bees, ants and sawflies). Although they look a lot like fuzzy ants, velvet ants (family: Mutillidae) are actually wasps. Unlike ants (family: Formicidae), velvet ants are not social insects and do not form large complex societies built upon a division of labour carried out by drones, workers, and queens. Yet, unlike wasps, adult females are uniformly wingless, although adult males have wings, which they use to fly over long distances in search of females to mate with. Meanwhile, the females keep themselves busy by looking for ground-nesting bee nests and wasp burrows, where they lay their eggs, so the developing velvet ant larvae can eat the host larvae or pupae alive.

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“Velvet ants fascinated me, not only because they are diverse and many are brightly colored and are quite attractive, but also because the family as a whole (Mutillidae) has not been studied very thoroughly so there is a lot of research left to be done”, said first author and evolutionary ecologist Joe Wilson, an assistant professor in the biology department at Utah State University’s Tooele campus.

Velvet ants possess several spectacular traits. Most obviously, many velvet ants are covered in a dense, glossy velvet-like fuzz -- hence their common name. This body fuzz, which is particularly common in desert-dwelling species, may help them retain body moisture. Their fuzz typically comes in a wide variety of eye-catching colours and patterns, including black, reddish orange, gold, pale yellow, white and silver. These brilliant colours serve as a visual warning signal to would-be predators.

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In today’s Current Biology study, Dr Wilson and his colleagues report on the extent of the North American velvet ant Müllerian mimicry complex by examining the geographic distributions and colour patterns for all of the 21 North American velvet ant genera that are active during the day. They report that this mimicry complex is extensive: it includes 302 of the 361 named species (nearly 84 percent), as well as 16 polymorphic colour forms and an additional 33 species that have not yet been formally described (Figure 1A):

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To determine which species formed a mimetic cluster, the team measured several morphological characters (fuzziness and colours on different parts of each velvet ant species’s body). Basically, this figure shows that, of the 351 species and colour forms analysed, 336 share at least some morphological similarities, whilst only 15 (just four percent) were distinct (Figure 1B).

This finding led Dr Wilson and his colleagues to propose that North American velvet ants form eight recognisable mimicry rings -- two of which (the red-headed Timulla and black-headed Timulla) are newly described (doi:10.1038/ncomms2275). In fact, this is one of the largest known Müllerian mimicry systems worldwide.

Why is velvet ant venom so ridiculously painful?

“[V]elvet ants are one of the most highly defended wasps that we know of, which makes them even more interesting. They are defended not only with their warning coloration, they have a painful sting that can be delivered through a stinger (officially known as a “sting”) that is nearly half the length of their body”, said Dr Wilson in email.

Is it possible that velvet ants evolved their many defences, particularly their intensely painful venom, as protection from some long-ago predator that is now extinct?

“I like the way you are thinking”, said Dr Wilson.

“In fact, we have suggested that same thing in conversations with colleagues. Unfortunately we don’t yet know what an extinct predator would have looked like”, said Dr Wilson.

It is also possible that velvet ants evolved their variety of aposematic signals in response to a wide array of potential predators, many of which are likely to be extinct.

“[A]t this point we just know that no extant animals are very successful at eating velvet ants, but experiments are ongoing. It could also be that the seemingly inordinately protective defenses are a byproduct of other things that we just haven’t measured yet”, added Dr Wilson.

But only female velvet ants possess a sting. The highly manoeuvrable sting is a modified ovipositor, or egg-laying organ. Velvet ant stings deliver a venom that is so intensely painful that they are often referred to as “cow killers”.

Both male and female velvet ants produce an auditory warning signal -- a loud squeak -- when harassed. I can easily recall when, as a child, I discovered (and poked) one member of the Western Mimicry ring as she ran across the hot sand, and was immediately intimidated by her desperate-sounding squeaks. Fortunately for me, the squeaking creature escaped before I could conduct further “tests”.

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This video captures a female velvet ant as she squeaks loudly and displays her impressive sting:

Could velvet ant venom really kill a cow?

“They kill cows as much as earwigs burrow into brains, camel spiders gobble down camel stomachs, milk snakes suck cow’s udders, and green darners sew up kids’ lips ... that is ... probably never”, said Paul Marek, an assistant professor in the department of entomology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and curator of the Virginia Tech Insect Collection, who was not part of this study.

“In reality, the velvet ant sting is not very toxic (in terms of lethality), even when compared to other wasps. While velvet ant stings won’t kill, they are widely known as being one of the more painful stings a person can get,” agreed Dr Wilson.

“The pain depends a lot on how large the stinging individual is”, said co-author and taxonomist Kevin Williams, who works as an identifier and curator of insects at the State of Florida’s Division of Plant Industry.

“There’s a moderate to intensely painful burning/shocking sensation for about 30 seconds, then itching for another minute or so”, said Dr Williams, who mentioned that he’s been stung “about 50 times”. Surely, so many stings probably makes Dr Williams the world’s only connoisseur velvet ant venoms, a peculiarity that is probably required before one can be considered one of the world’s foremost authorities of velvet ants.

“Generally, after two minutes there’s no sensation or sign that I was even stung. Interestingly, velvet ant venom is less lethal (has higher LD50 values) than honeybee or ant venom, even though the initial pain is more intense”, added Dr Williams.

“It makes sense because the velvet ant’s venom has the sole purpose of shocking/distracting its potential predator long enough to [make an] escape”, explained Dr Williams.

“Moral of the story; painfulness of a sting isn’t necessarily related to toxicity of a sting,” said Dr Wilson.

As if visual and auditory signals aren’t enough to warn away hungry predators, grabby children and inquisitive scientists, velvet ants have several other warning signals, too. For example, they have an extremely strong cuticle (skin) that is difficult for predators to crush -- and for insect collectors push a pin through.

“My least favorite experience with velvet ants, and highlights their hard exoskeleton, was early on as an entomologist, I tried to pin one and I pushed so hard on the pin head in order to drill into the hard shell that it went straight out through the other side of my finger instead of [through] the insect”, said Professor Marek.

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“We think the physical similarities across species benefit the wasps by quickly and effectively training their predators to avoid velvet ants displaying the local [warning] color pattern. This tells us that mimicry, rather than close genetic ties, may explain why the majority of velvet ants in a particular region [are] the same color,” said Dr Wilson.

Why are velvet ants so extremely sexually dimorphic?

Similar to other Hymenopterans, velvet ants employ haplodiploid sex determination. This sex determination system is where females develop from fertilized eggs (and thus are diploid), whilst males develop from unfertilized eggs (and are haploid). But adult males and females show other dramatic differences.

“Male velvet ants are completely different than the females”, said Dr Williams in email.

In fact, the physical appearances of adult male and female velvet ants are so strikingly different that it is quite challenging to identify whether two individuals are of the same species, unless they are captured whilst mating.

“It’s a really exciting challenge to try to match up the sexes and recognize the species limits. There’s twice as much variation and diversity to study in each of the 4000 velvet ant species”, said Dr Williams.

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Dasymutilla gloriosa females fit in the Desert Mimicry ring (i.e., they are white). The male of this species is most similar to the Western Mimicry ring (i.e., it has orange hair on the head, thorax and abdomen),” said Dr Wilson.

Such extremes between the appearance of adult male and female velvet ants reflects the very different lives that each leads -- females are terrestrial whilst males are primarily creatures of the air.

“Basically, the female’s whole life is taken up with walking and searching for something rare and hidden”, said Dr Williams.

“My hypothesis is that the most important characteristic that influences a velvet ant’s reproductive success is time spent searching. Therefore, any defense that increases longevity would be selected for”, said Dr Williams.

Velvet ants: aposematic masters?

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“Many aposematic organisms possess a nasty taste and a conspicuous appearance. Sometimes a foul taste, weird noise, and noxious taste. But velvet ants are an “aposematic one-man band” (in this case “one-woman band” since they’re all females) in a sense because they have all manner of noxious and raucous features”, said Professor Marek.

“It’s wonderful to think about velvet ants with their garish conspicuousness and suite of no less than five cues (coloring, odor, squeak, hard shell, and painful sting) that stimulate just about all of the senses of the predator”, said Professor Marek.

“It makes me wonder if the other features have converged as a result of this Müllerian mimicry just as their appearances have. Do co-mimics also stridulate or squeak with the same wave-form? Since birds and lizards have been mentioned as predators, do they appear different according to the visual system of their predators (e.g. UV colors that we cannot see as humans)?” said Professor Marek.

In short, velvet ants comprise a large and mostly unexamined system where scientists can test hypotheses about warning signals and mimicry, especially regarding the evolution of imperfect mimicry (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061610). Further, since Müllerian mimicry is an unusual natural phenomenon, there’s plenty more to learn about this, too.

“[T]hese animals are easy to collect (they’re here in our backyards in the US), possess a spectacular diversity of unique mimicry rings, and are exhilarating to try to scoop into a collecting jar without getting stung”, Professor Marek pointed out helpfully.

“Maybe this project will catch the attention of students who are interested in mimicry, but don’t want to write the ten-thousandth paper about monarch butterflies”, added Dr Williams.

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Source:

Joseph S. Wilson, Joshua P. Jahner, Matthew L. Forister, Erica S. Sheehan, Kevin A. Williams, and James P. Pitts (2015). North American velvet ants form one of the world’s largest known Müllerian mimicry complexes, Current Biology, published online on 17 August 2015 ahead of print | doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.06.053

also cited:

Joseph S. Wilson, Kevin A. Williams, Matthew L. Forister, Carol D. von Dohlen and James P. Pitts (2012). Repeated evolution in overlapping mimicry rings among North American velvet ants, Nature Communications 3:1272 | doi:10.1038/ncomms2275 (OA)

Joseph S. Wilson, Joshua P. Jahner, Kevin A. Williams, and Matthew L. Forister (2013). Ecological and Evolutionary Processes Drive the Origin and Maintenance of Imperfect mimicry, PLoS ONE 8(4): e61610 | doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061610 (OA)

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FAQs

Can a velvet ant hurt you? ›

How painful is a velvet ant's sting? A velvet ant's defensive sting is delivered through a stinger that is up to half the length of its body. The Pain Scale for Stinging Insects ranks the discomfort of insect stings on a scale of zero to four.

What could be the reason that female and male velvet ants evolved to have different characteristics? ›

Males, which cannot sting, often have the same colorful look as females, perhaps as a way to trick predators. Regardless, when faced with a predator males can just fly away because they have wings. Since females lack wings, they evolved these other defensive features to protect themselves while laying eggs.

What does a velvet ant sound like? ›

Both male and female velvet ants produce a squeaking or chirping sound when alarmed. It is often difficult to determine whether male and female specimens are the same species because their physical appearance differ greatly.

How painful is a velvet ant? ›

The velvet ant has multiple defensive strategies, but is best known for its extremely painful sting (female only), earning it the nickname of “cow killer,” not because it can kill a cow but because the sting hurts so badly that it feels like it could kill a cow.

What kills velvet ants? ›

Spraying with a Cypermethrin compound will keep these wasps and ants under control. Cypermethrin is a synthetic pyrethroid insecticide that is very safe to humans, pets and wildlife but is very effective against a wide range of insects including ants, fire ants, roaches, spiders and crickets.

What eats velvet ants? ›

The predators include toads, lizards, birds, shrews, and a mole.

Why are velvet ants called cow killers? ›

Female velvet ants have a very potent sting that has earned them the nickname "cow-killer." Male red velvet ants lack a stinger but have wings.

What does it mean to see a red velvet ant? ›

Red Velvet Ant facts: they're not actually ants for starters... - YouTube

How do you keep ants from getting velvet? ›

To get rid of velvet ants, you will need to treat ground wasp and bee nests with D-Fense Dust to eliminate potential females and spray tolerant ornamentals with Supreme IT Insecticide. Eliminate any traveling or flying velvet ants in your line of sight with Stryker Wasp and Hornet Killer.

How long do velvet ants live? ›

Red velvet ants usually have a life expectancy of less than one year, during which they undergo several life stages, including grub, larva, and pupa.

Where do velvet ants live? ›

Cow killer ants, often called velvet ants, live in open, sunny areas like lawns, gardens, pastures, and non-shaded areas of forests. These red and black colored insects are wasps, not true ants, and they attack bumblebee hives and other insect nests to lay their eggs.

How big do velvet ants get? ›

The eastern velvet ant is the largest velvet ant in the United States, ranging from two-thirds of an inch to 1-inch (15 to 25 mm) in length. The common name velvet ant originates from the velvety appearance of the dense hairs on most of the body.

Can velvet ants fly? ›

If you see a velvet ant with wings, rest assured, it is a male. Although capable of flight, males are incapable of stinging, as they lack stingers. Females, who lack wings, need a suitable host to be able to lay their eggs, and they spend most of their time looking for one.

Are killer ants real? ›

In fact, deadly ant species have killed people living in regions all over the world, including America, Australia, Africa, South America, Europe and elsewhere. In Australia, there exists a potentially deadly ant species that is commonly known as Jack jumper ant.

What's the most painful sting in the world? ›

Bullet ant

Last but not least, we have the most painful sting of all — the bullet ant sting. Schmidt describes the pain as “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel” and rates it as a 4.0+…off-the-charts pain that lasts up to 24 hours.

Are velvet ants poisonous to dogs? ›

No, just like with humans, red velvet ants can only cause pain but they are practically harmless to dogs. In most cases, dogs are not allergic to velvet ant's venom but just like with us humans certain dogs can have some of the allergic symptoms (rare cases).

How do you find a velvet ant nest? ›

Velvet ants occur in places where their host species dig their nests. They are most often found in open, dry, sunny, sandy areas such as sunny lawns or cemeteries.

What happens if you get stung by a velvet ant? ›

Histamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine contribute to the pain associated with velvet ant stings. The sting of a velvet ant is excruciatingly painful and causes localized redness and swelling. There are no reports in the literature of anaphylaxis from a velvet ant sting, although, in theory, anaphylaxis is possible.

Are velvet ants active at night? ›

Velvet ants are active during the day, and they may be some of the first insects to hit the trail in the morning and last to settle in for the night. They retreat from high ground temperatures in the middle of the day by burrowing under debris or climbing into plants.

Do velvet ants come out at night? ›

Females are most often found scurrying along the ground looking for nests of host species, while males are found on flowers. Velvet ants are relatively solitary creatures and are most active at dusk/night.

Are velvet ants good? ›

Red velvet ants are a good thing to spot in the landscape if you're worried about yellow jackets. Red velvet ants prey on yellow jackets and other ground-nesting bees and wasps by burrowing into their nest, laying an egg in the bee cocoon.

What happens if you get stung by a velvet ant? ›

Histamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine contribute to the pain associated with velvet ant stings. The sting of a velvet ant is excruciatingly painful and causes localized redness and swelling. There are no reports in the literature of anaphylaxis from a velvet ant sting, although, in theory, anaphylaxis is possible.

Can you squish a velvet ant? ›

Despite their lack of predators velvet ants are so well defended from their painful stings, difficulty being crushed with hard exoskeletons, and ability to release a foul odor.

How long does velvet ant sting last? ›

That red and black insect is nicknamed "Cow Killer" because of its powerful sting which can leave victims in excruciating pain for about 30 minutes.

Do velvet ants bite or sting? ›

Threats. Female velvet ants have a very potent sting that has earned them the nickname "cow-killer." Male red velvet ants lack a stinger but have wings.

Where do velvet ants live? ›

Cow killer ants, often called velvet ants, live in open, sunny areas like lawns, gardens, pastures, and non-shaded areas of forests. These red and black colored insects are wasps, not true ants, and they attack bumblebee hives and other insect nests to lay their eggs.

Do velvet ants fly? ›

The male red velvet ants have wings for flight while the wingless females do not, but males are not endowed with stingers, making the ground dwelling female the one to be most careful of.

Where can I find velvet ants? ›

Velvet ants occur in places where their host species dig their nests. They are most often found in open, dry, sunny, sandy areas such as sunny lawns or cemeteries. Females of several species can produce chirping or squeaking sounds by scraping one abdominal segment against another.

What are velvet ants good for? ›

Red velvet ants are a good thing to spot in the landscape if you're worried about yellow jackets. Red velvet ants prey on yellow jackets and other ground-nesting bees and wasps by burrowing into their nest, laying an egg in the bee cocoon.

How big is a velvet ant? ›

The red velvet-ant is the largest velvet-ant species, reaching about 3/4 inch in length. They are black overall with patches of dense orange-red hair on the thorax and abdomen. Males are similar but have wings and can not sting.

Do red velvet ants bite? ›

Also dubbed as “cow killers,” red velvet ants are known for their ability to cause painful stings on humans and animals. It is said that their bite is excruciating that it could probably kill a cow, hence their nickname.

Are red velvet ants harmful to dogs? ›

Can a red velvet ant kill my dog? No, just like with humans, red velvet ants can only cause pain but they are practically harmless to dogs. In most cases, dogs are not allergic to velvet ant's venom but just like with us humans certain dogs can have some of the allergic symptoms (rare cases).

Why are velvet ants fuzzy? ›

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

What are blue ants called? ›

The blue ant (Diamma bicolor), also known as the blue-ant or bluebottle, despite its name and appearance, is not an ant, but rather a species of large, solitary, parasitic wasp sometimes known as a flower wasp.

What states do velvet ants live in? ›

Dasymutilla occidentalis (red velvet ant or eastern velvet ant), is a species of parasitoid wasp native to the eastern United States. It is commonly mistaken for a member of the true ant family, as the female is wingless. The species ranges from Connecticut to Missouri in the north and Florida to Texas in the south.

Are killer ants real? ›

In fact, deadly ant species have killed people living in regions all over the world, including America, Australia, Africa, South America, Europe and elsewhere. In Australia, there exists a potentially deadly ant species that is commonly known as Jack jumper ant.

What do cow killers eat? ›

Adult cowkiller ants primarily feed on nectar but they will also eat larvae and adult insects, such as flies, beetles, bees, and other wasps. Velvet ants seen walking on sand are all females. Those seen flying low over the ground are all males.

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