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Velvet Ants: Small Wasps With Large, Painful Stings

Velet ant, red and black wasp crawling on green plant.
Saint Louis Zoo

Entomologists at Utah State University are studying insects to determine how the size of an insect’s body compares to the size of its sting.

Even though colloquially we call the part of an insect’s body that stings a stinger, it is actually called the sting.

“A lot of research has been done on the chemical component of the sting but not just physically measuring them. And we wanted to see what was actually going on, if it was just large organisms have large stings or if there was something else” said Emily Sadler, an entomologist at Utah State University and the lead researcher investigating the length of insect stings. 

“And what we found was that velvet ants actually do have the longest sting compared to their body size," Sadler said. "So when we look at the most painful stings coming from spider wasps or bullet ants, they are large organisms and their sting is really big. But when we look at velvet ants, which come in just under them, they’re actually the same length as those bigger organisms, but their body is about half the size."

The velvet ant is a type of wingless wasp, with one of the most painful and largest stings in the world.

“So velvet ants, it is actually a misnomer, they’re wasps," Sadler said. "But they get that name because the females, they kinda scurry around on the ground and they look like ants. And then they also have a whole lot of hair on them and so they look velvety.” 

Stinging insects get a bad rap because of the pain they can inflict, but Sadler wants people to know that stinging insects are vital to our ecosystems.

“So they do a lot for us, some of them go after spiders, some of them go after other stinging insects. They also pollinate, a lot of people give all of that credit to bees but ants and wasps can pollinate as well," Sadler said.