Red Velvet Ants Aren’t Really Ants at All!

These huge velvety red ants you see moving quickly over the ground are not really ants at all!  Red Velvet ants are actually wasps.  In fact, they are parasitoid wasps, which means that they lay eggs on the larvae of other insects like ground nesting bees.

Red Velvet Ants, Dasymutilla occidentalis, might be mistaken for ants because the female doesn’t have wings and looks, in fact, like a big bright fluffy ant.  

The females are wingless, so they look just like a huge version of an ant, with bright red bristles.  One would think that the bright color draws attention to the organism, but in nature it can serve as a warning to would-be predators.  The bright color is an example of aposematism, or advertising to predators that you are dangerous to eat. (From the greek for sematic (sign) and apo (away)). 

But that’s not the only defense she has!  Red Velvet ants can move quickly to escape predators, and they are armed with a relatively thick exoskeleton: they are more than 10 times harder to squish than a honeybee!