The gloriously dichromatic Dasymutilla gloriosa

I have a small collection of velvet ants (family Mutillidae) that I’ve accumulated over the years—not through active collection but more as bycatch from my beetle hunting operations. Velvet ants are, of course, not ants at all, but wasps, and as such the females are—like their winged relatives—quite capable of delivering a painful sting if mishandled. They also tend to be seen running rather frenetically across the ground, making them difficult to guide into a collection vial or grab with forceps. You’ve gotta really want ‘em if you want to collect them. Still, even though I don’t study them I find them interesting enough to pick up on occasion, and with most groups outside of my area of focus the hope is that eventually they will end up in the hands of somebody who actively studies the group. Such is now the case with my mutillid collection, which will be shipped this week to another collector specializing in the group. In return I will be filling some holes in European representation of my collection of Cerambycidae.

Dasymutilla gloriosa, female | Brewster Co., Texas

Dasymutilla gloriosa, female | Brewster Co., Texas

Without question, the most interesting mutillid species that I’ve encountered is Dasymutilla gloriosa. All mutillids are sexually dimorphic, as only the males are winged, but most also tend to be sexually dichromatic to a greater or lesser degree. No species I am aware of takes this to the same level as D. gloriosa! The males (photo below) are rather typically colored compared to other species in the genus, but the females (photo above) are densely covered with long, strikingly white hairs. While this would seem to make them quite conspicuous, the true effect is the exact opposite as they easily confused with fuzzy plant seed. For this reason they are commonly called thistledown velvet ants. I encountered the female in west Texas in 2003 while walking a mountain trail and at first thought it was the fuzzy seed of a creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) being blown by the wind—except there was no wind! It took me a little while looking closely at it before I could figure out what it actually was. This is the only female of this species that I’ve seen in the wild, and I’ll be a little sad to see it sent to another location.

Dasymutilla gloriosa, male | Riverside Co., California

Dasymutilla gloriosa, male | Riverside Co., California

The male also is the only one I’ve encountered—or at least taken the trouble to collect. I would have never suspected this male, which I collected in southern California in 1991, was the same species as the female that I collected many years later. My thanks to Kevin Williams, who provided the identifications for both of these specimens.

Also called the ''thistledown velvet ant''

Also called the ”thistledown velvet ant”

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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3 Responses to The gloriously dichromatic Dasymutilla gloriosa

  1. Largest concentration of Velvet Ants have ever seen was on the Briscoe Ranch in S. Texas. Virtually every (thorny) shrub had several frenetically running up and down.
    Had tagged along on with Herp collecting bunch. Briscoe was a former Governor of Texas, and quite wealthy. He had turned his former Cattle ranch into a exotic game hunting preserve and fenced (?) thousand of acres with 30′ hurricane fence.

    Had not been long, so land had not yet recovered from the cattle, so mostly trails with the isolated mesquite /opuntia and other thorny stuff was where all the criters resided.

    I was at the time collecting Bradycinetulus sp. from pack rat runs, and had good results there, finding numerous adults and numerous larvae on that trip. As virtually everything lived togethor (tortoise, Rodentia, possums, foxes etc) could always isolate the Rattus runs, as they strewed them with Opuntia thorn (they ate the Opuntia, gnawed around the sticker bunches). At night, also found (forgot the genus) the ancient Cerambycids which ate the Opuntia, and lived underground the rest of the time in abundance.

    Did a lot of blacklighting and found the interesting stuff usually at the far edges of lighted area.

    Also collected and reared out wood eating insects, and for Dept of Agriculture, legume seed beetles and their parasites (and parasites of the parasites.

    Since the gas boom, understand that about 1/4 of the former shrub is being bulldozed; drilling rigs are no more than a mile apart, along with roads. Breaks my heart. My brother is in the pollution mitigation business (Whole Earth Environmental, Inc), and he has crews down there constantly.

    All collecting in 70′s. Did not maintain a personal collection; passed everything on to specialists.

  2. The female Velvet Ant is a wonderful photograph.

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