Velvet ants- which aren’t really ants at all- are wingless wasps that parasitize ground-nesting bees. They are attractive insects, bearing bright colors and cute frizzy hair. But in case you are ever tempted to pick up one of those cuddly-looking little guys, let the photo above serve as a reminder about what lies at the tail end: an unusually long, flexible stinger. As you can see, the wasp is capable of swinging it back over her shoulder, with perfect aim, to zing the forceps. The venom is potent, and in some parts of the U.S. these insects are called “Cow-Killers”. As is always the case with solitary wasps, the sting is only deployed defensively. If you don’t bother the velvet ants, they won’t bother you.
When not attacking entomologists, the wasp in the top photo (a nocturnal species in the genus Sphaeropthalma) looks like this:
Thanks to Kevin Williams for the collection, the identification, and for holding the forceps.