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Red Velvet Ants
Naturalist(s): W.J. Davis
Date: Summer 2012
Location(s): Rothenbach Park, Sarasota, FL (map)
Rothenbach Park, Sarasota, FL

When searching for Red Velvet Ants (Dasymutilla occidentalis), keep your eyes focus on the ground because that is where you'll likely see a flash of red as a female runs across a patch of open terrain. All the frantic running usually indicates that a female is hunting for nursery burrows of fellow bees and digger wasps, with the intent of laying eggs on her neighbor's developing pupae.

   Finding a burrow, however, can meticulously inspection of every nock and crevice. And then a female must determine if the nest's contents will adequately nurish her offspring. Apparently, such laborious and dangerous work is best done on foot which may explain why female velvet ants lack wings.

   On the other hand, filming male velvet ants is much easier than trying to keep a hyperactive female in focus; if, that is, you can find an adult male. Personally, I have only once encountered male velvet ants. In this instance, two males were fighting over a nondescript plot of bare ground.

   As the drama played out, the more brightly colored male frequently landed at a particular spot and started digging in the sand. What was he doing? It is unlikely that the male was searching for food as adult velvet ants typically dine on nectar.

   Presumably, male velvet ants can spot females while flying low over the forest floor. Equally salient, they can also detect pheromones released by young and receptive females. If so, such facts could explain two behaviors I observed:

    * First, as evident in the video, the antennae of both males were constantly twitching as if the males were sampling the air for a female's scent?

   * And second, it we assume that young females start emitting pheromones soon after emerging from a pupa, in this case when they are still in a host's burrow, then male velvet ants are likely to be attracted to the entrances of covered nests that contain new females.

   Understandbly, being the first to copulate with a virgin female would enhance a male's chances of siring young.