Cow Killer and Wandering Gliders

 

A cow killer (Dasymutilla occidentalis) is a wasp. The females are flightless. If you’ve seen one, you’ve surely remembered it for its velvety, bright red or orange and black coloration. It was probably racing around your backyard, a sandy patch of soil with sparse vegetation, or across the hiking trail you were trekking down.

 

Cow killer, scurrying.
Cow killer, scurrying.

 

If you were wondering what the insect was doing, dashing around as it was, it was looking for the underground nest of another wasp or bee to parasitize. Cow killers, depending upon the species observed, lay their eggs in the nests of other bees or wasps, their larvae consuming the larvae of the host nest.

The name cow killer comes from the potent sting of these wasps. It’s said that it’s so powerful it could kill a cow. I don’t know how much pain comes from the sting of this wasp and I don’t want to find out through personal experience. I have, though, seen a video of someone purposely provoking a cow killer into stinging his arm. The individual reported substantial pain at the sting site.

Another name for cow killers is red velvet ant. Although most cow killers are much larger than your average ant, three quarters to nearly an inch in the species seen here, they do look like giant ants. In fact, ants and wasps belong to the same order of insect, Hymenoptera.

I captured the cow killer you see in the photos in a plastic vial and placed it in a plastic tub with an inch of sand in the bottom to make the photos more “natural” in appearance. I later released the wasp.

 

Crawling along the edge of the tub.
Crawling along the edge of the tub.

 

On Tuesday (9/15) as I passed the Sailboat Pond in Catch the Wind I noticed a dragonfly fly up from the edge of the pond. This would normally not arouse more than passing interest since the Sailboat Pond is a pond and there are often dragonflies flying about the pond. However, it was a chilly morning, the dragonfly’s wings were extremely shiny (fresh), and it looked like a wandering glider.

Wandering gliders (Pantala flavescens) are cosmopolitan dragonflies being found around the globe in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Indonesia, and parts of Europe. They are even encountered at sea, far from any landmass.

I followed the trajectory of the dragonfly I had seen leaving the edge of the pond to a viburnum. I located the insect and photographed it. Sure enough, it was a teneral (soft, newly emerged from its pupal stage) wandering glider.

 

Wandering glider on viburnum leaf.
Wandering glider on viburnum leaf.

 

I looked around the edge of the pond for more gliders. If one had emerged there’d probably be others, there were.

 

Wandering glider next to its exuvia.
Teneral wandering glider next to its exuvia.

 

Clear evidence that others had merged.
Clear evidence that others had merged.

 

In all, I counted half a dozen exuviae around the pond that morning.

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