The Stuff of Nightmares: Thistledown Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla Gloriosa


Dasymutilla gloriosa, a species of white “velvet ant”, might not give you nightmares. After all, the thistledown insect–which is a solitary female wasp, not a real ant–is not huge (somewhere in the half inch range), not aggressive, and lives out in the desert here in Cochise County, Arizona. At a distance, she looks like a little (slightly raggedy) bit of cotton fluff darting here and there, a darling bit of a thing.

But up close is different–and imagine if she (the fluffy ones are always females) was your size or even bigger. Imagine this thing being the size of a mountain lion and coming at you. Note: She’s fast, too. Really fast.

Thistledown velvet ant?  HA!  Picture this monster as 200 pounds of nasty and coming at you....

Thistledown velvet ant? HA! Picture this monster as 200 pounds of nasty and coming at you….

Paradigm shift? Doesn’t look so cute now, does she?

At least the thistledown white is not the largest of the velvet ants. That would be the red version, also known as the cow killer, which we also have here on our property. Not that any of these wasps really go around slaughtering 1,000 pound Hereford or Angus beef animals, but they do have re-e-eally long stingers that reportedly hurt a lot. Their venom is not overly nasty, but their butt-spears sting deep and hard and make up for that. Super tough exoskeletons, too; some collectors have reported difficulty getting steel pins to pierce their armor. Which is a good thing in my book; I’d just as soon see the collectors stuck through and mounted on display boards.

As babies, Dasymutilla gloriosa and the numerous other species of velvet ants find themselves well fed without having to work at it. Mom lays her eggs near pupae of ground dwelling bees or even other wasps, the junior monsters hatch and grow fast, and the immature bee forms become lunch within a matter of days.

Which makes the adult velvet ant’s preference for nectar a bit of a surprise. The adults will also eat other things, though, little things that live below ground…and sometimes they find a use for that nectar-sucking proboscis that leaves the observer going, “Ew-w-w!” The feeding tube will not pull up solids (Duh!) but was clearly being used in a couple of the photos I took today. There’s certainly no “nectar” under the surface of the bare earth the wasp was hunting, but it’s a sure bet that vacuum sucker thing was sucking up something liquid. Spiders suck the life juices out of their victims; this had to be something similar.

The thistledown velvet ant's lengthy proboscis is still extended as she straightens up from her head-down feeding on...something...that once lived in the crevice.

The thistledown velvet ant’s lengthy proboscis is still extended as she straightens up from her head-down feeding on…something…that once lived in the crevice.

On the other hand, the velvet ant is not, as I originally but erroneously thought, a parasitic wasp. Some of the sources I consulted the first time we encountered one of these motorized cotton balls were apparently a bit misinformed. The mama wasp does not lay her eggs inside other insects but rather next to baby bee pupae (or whatever)…which makes the young, freshly hatched velvet ant a carnivore rather than a parasite.

As adults, they don’t seem to have the slightest interest in tackling other quick moving, above ground insects. The model in the photos on this page was “ground hunting” in close proximity to all sorts of harvester ants, crickets, and beetles. She ignored them all. Her prey (of whatever sort it may be) appears to live below ground surface and is either slow moving or completely stationery when the hungry thistledown comes to call.

From the rear, the thistledown velvet ant's true wasp nature becomes readily apparent.

From the rear, the thistledown velvet ant’s true wasp nature becomes readily apparent.

Hard at it:  This velvet ant really gets into her work.

Hard at it: This velvet ant really gets into her work.

After giving the thistledown velvet ant a hard time about being “the stuff of nightmares”, it’s only fair to mention that this girl bug in the raggedy cotton dress really got the short end of the stick in the mating department. The males lack stingers but they get to fly–yep, they have wings–and they’re a lot bigger than the females. So much so, according to one source, that they sometimes carry the girls aloft when mating.

Talk about getting carried away. Do you suppose that’s the real reason a female Dasymutilla Gloriosa has such a tough exoskeleton? So that if a guy dumps her from on high in the sky, she bounces when she hits the ground instead of going splat?

That would give a whole new meaning to the term “on the rebound”….

8 thoughts on “The Stuff of Nightmares: Thistledown Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla Gloriosa

  1. Getting dumped by the male could be a smashing proposition and more painful than to the ego. Pretty and I hope I don’t run into any of these too soon. Katy says pretty and she will stay away from them. sounds smart to me.

  2. Good thinking on both your parts. Fortunately, they are NOT aggressive toward humans; you just don’t want to try picking one up with your bare hands or stepping on one with your bare feet.

    They do keep reproducing enough for us to see them every year, so I’m guessing the male deposits the female gently back on the ground when the romance is done. Puts a new twist to the old “Mile High Club”, though.

  3. You have some interesting critters out there in the desert, Ghost. I’ve never heard of this insect before. She’s pretty, but I sure wouldn’t want to piss her off! You’re probably right about the reasoning for the strong female exoskeleton. I find it odd that they can’t fly. Maybe that’s why they’re called ants. What do the males look like?

  4. I wouldn’t want to piss her off, either. I’m not sure what the white velvet ant males look like. Haven’t been able to spot anything that might fit or even find an online photo of one. Some of the other varieties look a bit like their mates, except of course with wings.

  5. Thanks for fascinating article. I’ve see a couple of these here in Gallup, NM but only two in the last 5 years.

  6. Appreciate the comment, Rob. Not surprised to hear they’re in the Gallup area, though we see a heck of lot more of them around here than you do. Just a couple the first year on this property (2009) but half a dozen or so this year (2014), and I don’t think we’ve missed seeing at least one during every of the intervening years.

  7. Just saw my first white velvet ant today while tending my garden, here in greenlee county arizona. At first i though it was a piece of fluff going with the breeze. Glad i found your page and got that cleared up! Thanks for sharing your findings.

  8. Thanks for commenting, Michael. They do look like bits of fluff, until we see their movement pattern makes no sense and includes darting underground on the hunt at variable intervals. 😀

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