While wandering around the ranch, the Czarina and I ran into an old friend, well, enemy, from my adolescence. We were tromping around close to the bank on the Brazos river, and spotted and surprised a rather interesting lizard. While circling around to get a photo so I could ID it later, she suddenly exclaimed “What the hell is THAT?” In a small sapling was what initially appeared to be a rust-colored ball of fluff, and the fluff was moving. That’s when we had a reminder that cowbirds weren’t the only parasites on the ranch.
That fuzzball is most likely a female Dasymutilla klugii, commonly known as a velvet ant. Velvet ants are members of the family Mutillidae, part of the same superfamily of insects that includes wasps, stinging ants, and hornets. The velvet ants are flightless wasps found through North America, but they’re rarely seen by most people. It’s not that they’re incredibly rare, but that a combination of rough habitat and a tendency to stay away from human habitations means that they’re not encountered all that often.
Eric Grissell’s book Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens still qualifies as one of the best general interest books on wasps published in the last fifty years, and even it doesn’t have all that much on velvet ants. That lack of knowledge is due to their being poorly studied. What’s known for certain is that they tend to be exoparasites of exoparasites. Many species take advantage of hunting wasps’ industriousness by waiting until a mother wasp digs a nesting gallery, gathers paralyzed prey to feed her young, and lays an egg atop said host. The velvet ant sneaks into the gallery while the mother wasp is away and lays its own egg next to the wasp’s egg. The velvet ant larva hatches first, and it first eats the wasp egg and then the host before pupating and emerging as an adult velvet ant. Other than that, it’s known that the females are flightless while the males are winged, and the females pack an impressive sting, to the point where they’re also called “cow-killers” or “mule-droppers”.
Obviously, I wasn’t insane enough to test the stories, because I tend to pay attention to warnings along the lines of “much more painful than a bee sting”. I settled for watching it scramble through the sapling, desperately looking for something that it couldn’t quite find, before leaving it to go about its business.
And how was this an old friend/enemy? Being a kid of the northern US, my views on Texas were based on reading, particularly a copy of the book Poisonous Dwellers of the Desert by Natt N. Dodge that had been left at my house by a friend when I was nine. By the time I was thirteen, I had read that book to death, regaling everyone with horror tales of cone-nosed bugs, puss caterpillars, the multiple species of scorpion and dangerously venomous spiders to be found in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts. After I informed a honeybee-stung neighbor that scraping out the sting is much better than pulling it out, she asked me how I knew this, and I merely pointed to the paragraph in question. At that point, nobody in the family questioned me about the arthropodal horrors we’d encounter in North Texas, even after my mother was playing solitaire on the floor of our new living room in Flowermound and put down the 10 of hearts atop a bark scorpion that was checking out the neighborhood. (Two days later, she found another in a huge crock bowl she used for making popcorn. That one became the basis for my first experiment in encasing a scorpion in epoxy, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, the summer of 1980 not only brought us the hottest summer in North Texas history, only possibly exceeded by the droughts of record of 1952 and 2011, but it brought out all sorts of critters. At the time, I lived on the edge of a huge subdivision that was under construction through the year, and honed my then barely existent tracking skills by chasing down the multitude of new animals that I’d never before encountered. One of these was a similar ball of fluff, and I knew well enough about not letting it sting. What I didn’t know is that velvet ants also bite. HARD. I yelled and flung it as far away as I could before it could reacquire a stinging target, and that was the last velvet ant I would see for nearly one-third of a century. And so it goes.