My boys started noticing these large red and black ants in the backyard, and since I was not familiar with this kind of ant, I decided it was time for us to do some more study and investigation about it. We have studied ants before in great detail, making paper ones on a mural, observing them in an ant farm, (here, too), but it would be a good idea to look at ants again, with this red ant in mind. I followed Barbara's suggestions at her blog Handbook of Nature Study regarding ants and reviewed the section in the HNS, passing along ideas for things to look for in our ant. I then searched for our ant on the Internet. I found some red ants, but none of them were furry like this guy, until I came to something on the Red Velvet Ant, with a picture that looked just like our ant.
"The velvet ant is actually a wasp that closely resembles an ant. They are covered in hair that is often brightly colored, which serves as a warning to predators that this wasp can deliver a painful sting.The velvet ant, also known as Cow Killer, is one of the tougher creatures in the insect world. The velvet ant, which is actually a type of wasp, has a very hard exoskeleton, and the hairs on its body also serve as protection from other wasps and bees. The velvet ant is an invader, so its defenses are necessary for its survival. The velvet ant female is wingless. She lays her eggs into the nests of ground dwelling bees and wasps so that the larva of the velvet ant has a food source when it hatches from its egg. The velvet ant larvae feed on the larvae in the bee or wasp nest, and the velvet ant larvae will kill the larvae of the bee or wasp, thus making the velvet ant larvae parasitoids"
A wasp? Could that be? Could our ant really be a wasp? We researched further and examined our ant more.
"Velvet ants are closely related to actually ants, but there are a few differences. First, velvet ants do not have bent antennae. Also, the 'waist' of velvet ants, or the area between the thorax and abdomen, does not narrow dramatically like an ant's body."Hmmm...our ant's antennae definitely was not bent. And, upon closer inspection, we could see that although the waist did narrow quite a bit, as compared to a black ant, it did not narrow as much.
"You should avoid handling velvet ants because they have a very painful sting. They got the name cow killer because the sting is so painful that it can kill a cow. Actually, that isn't true, and the name might have developed because a sting could lead to infection by bacteria or sawflies that could eventually kill a cow, but the description of how painful their sting is, is how the name cow killer got stuck. Velvet ants are not aggressive and will try to escape rather than defend territory if you approach them. However, if you pick them up they can squeak loudly and deliver a venomous sting"
So, in our quest to learn the identity of an ant, we ended up learning about a wasp, which is sometimes the way of Nature Study. You just follow the path that is laid before you, and you might end up in a different place than you expect to be, but that is okay, you still learn from it, and in this case, we learned something very valuable.
All quotes about the Red Velvet "ant" come from here.