COWKILLERS; CICADA KILLERS; ANTS (and other Hymenopterans) 
This page was born 11/10/2006.  Rickubis designed it.  (such as it is.) Last update: 11/07/2016
Images and contents on this page copyright © 2006-2016 Richard M. Dashnau  

11/06/2016 If you've been walking outside among trees, you may have sometimes noticed an ant crawling on your arm or upper body. This has occasionally happened to me.
I wondered how the ant managed to crawl all the way up from the ground until I realized that the ants were falling on to me out of the trees. I'd never considered what kind of
ants they were until recently.
I'd describe the ants as reddish-brown and black, but long and thin when compared with fire ants or carpenter ants. In various literature they are described as "wasp like".
They are called Mexican Twig Ants, Elongate Twig Ants, or Graceful Twig Ants (pseudomyrmex gracilis or pseudomyrmex mexicalus). I found an article online:
Elongate Twig Ant, Mexican Twig Ant (suggested common names), Pseudomyrmex gracilis (Fabricius) (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Pseudomyrmecinae)
by Patricia L. Toth (link:
According to this article, these Twig Ants have a painful sting (I've also learned this through personal experience), but are usually only encountered in small numbers. It is a solitary
ant--it forms small colonies. It feeds on live insects, fungus spores, and can tend aphids for honeydew. These ants are originally from Mexico.
As the name suggests, Twig Ants nest in hollow twigs, but can use other small cavities as well. Once I learned about this ant, I started trying to photograph one.
I've tried several times (they move quickly), and was finally able to capture video of a twig ant on one of the benches at BBSP.  I filmed the video at 120 fps to slow the ant's movements.
The "wasp-like" shape of the ant can be seen, as well as the long, oval eyes. Near the end of the video it's possible to see the ant cleaning its antennae. I also took a few photos, shown below.
The video clip is linked here.


I read another article on the feeding habits of these ants:
In that study, they determined that it was possible to get an idea of what ants eat by looking at their pellets.  What pellets?
Ants clean themselves, other ants and their nest. They also can only ingest liquids, but get those liquids by processing various prey items, such as insects.   When ants clean themselves,
they use their tongue. Ants have a tongue that they can extend between their mandibles for a short distance.  I found this for a very detailed study on the function of an ant's tongue:
How Do Ants Stick Out Their Tongues?
by Jürgen Paul, Flavio Roces, and Bert Hölldobler
According to that study, the tongue is apparently extended "passively" by various elastic structures that are loaded when the tongue is retracted. The tongue is held in place
by other passive structures that allow the tongue to extend when those structures are moved out of the way. This means that the tongue is not extended by pressure from the ant's body fluid,
or hemolymph.  Hard materials, and various "gunk" that ants clean off their antennae, etc.  are deposited in a cavity that opens just below their esophagus.  This is called an "infra buccal pocket",
and as material gets compacted into the pocket; it is eventually expelled as a pellet. This pellet can be examined to determine the nature of the materials within--and some idea of what the ant eats
 can be found. This surprised me, since owl pellets (which are formed a bit differently) can be used to determine what an owl has eaten!  So, at the end of my video clip, the ant cleans its antennae,
and I believe I can see the ant's tongue also!  The ant is pulling its antennae though comb-like structures on its front legs called "strigils". After it combs the dirt off its antennae, the ant uses its tongue
to clean off the strigils. This material is
stored in the infra buccal cavity. Eventually it will expelled as a very, very small pellet.

10/16/2016 For a brief time, there was a rather unique opportunity at the Nature Center.  Yellowjackets had built a nest on the edge of the building, right in front of the  main entrance. The entrance to the nest was only about 7 feet high.
The yellowjackets were quite docile, fortunately-especially considering the number of people walking by just below their nest.  I didn't get a chance to look closely at them until about 3pm, and the sun had already moved to a point that
caused most of the area to be shaded. I took a few pictures
and then a few video clips. When I tried to take some closer shots, I realized that I  was moving a camera (with an occasional flash) just a few feet from the entrance of the nest I stopped taking pictures. I decided not to press my luck. Like some other
"social" hymenopterans, if one of the workers is goaded into a defensive sting--then along with the sting two sets of pheromones (scent markers) can be released.
One is an "alarm"
scent, which alerts other workers and brings them out into defensive mode. The other is a "marker", which points the alerted workers towards a TARGET to attack. This is mentioned in a study I read some time ago: 
"Developing a paired-target apparatus for quantitative
testing of nest defense behavior by vespine wasps in response to con- or heterospecific nest defense pheromones", by Sean McCann, Onour Moeri, Sebastian Ibarra Jimenez,
Catherine Scott, Gerhard Gries (link: So, I was only able to get a few interesting macro photos, and video clips,  and so I've put them
together into a short video. The images shown here are the few good ones I captured.  
The video that I put together from the clips is right here.


I wanted to identify these yellowjackets. My insect books didn't really have a clear description that I could use, so I looked online, and found some good studies. The one that helped most is:
"The Yellowjackets of America North of Mexico" from the Department of Agriculture (1980). Link:
The information that follows came from that source.
The term "Yellowjacket" probably originated in America. It actually refers to just two genera. "True Hornets" are related to yellowjackets, but are larger, and usually live in the Old World, although one species (The European Hornet,
 Vespa crabro) has been introduced into eastern North America around 1850.  This guide had a very good identification key, and I was able to identify the yellowjackets as Southern Yellowjackets (Vespula squamosa) by the line in the
center of the second  abdominal segment that joins two dark bands.  Near the end of a season, workers start pulling larvae from the combs an feed them to other larvae, or discard them. During this time (late summer or autumn) workers
of some types of yellowjackets are more likely to sting, even if they are away from  the nest. Yellowjackets don't store honey. They feed their larvae meat (usually pulped arthropods--the correct term is "maxalated") and possibly nectar
and honeydew. The adults can feed on juices produced while they chew and pulp (maxalate) meat for use in the nest. They can also eat nectar and larval secretions.


This species of yellow jacket sometimes "usurp" colonies of another species of yellow jacket ( such as v. maculifrons, Eastern Yellowjacket). V. squamosa is considered a "facultative social parasite" of other species of Vespula. That is,
they "can" parasitize other nests but it isn't a requirement for their survival. V. squamosa *can* build their own nests. Otherwise, a V. squamosa queen "usurps" the nest of the original "host" queen. Then she assumes complete control of
 the host colony. The host workers then take care of the first brood of the new queen (v. squamosa) and eventually only the new queen's workers inhabit the colony. About 20 percent of colonies in one study showed no traces of the original
colony--but in the rest, host workers have remained, or the nest shows evidence of the earlier construction by the host species. The usurped host nest can show "smaller, tan cells" that contrast  with the large grey cells of the original
owners.  So it's sometimes possible to determine the history of a v. Squamosa colony by looking at the construction of the nest. Considering that this nest appeared rather suddenly in this high-traffic area, it's probably not a "usurped" nest.
There may be some out there who feel that yellowjackets are just a nuisance and should be eliminated, but many sources consider them beneficial insects because of the number of potentially destructive insects (such as caterpillars,
grasshoppers) that they abduct, maxalate, and feed to their larvae. It is true that if large amounts of food are left exposed to rot (quantities of protein like meat, or sugars like fruit), then large numbers of yellowjackets can
appear to take advantage of the windfall. But, it's usually *people* who leave those piles of food.

08/24/2014  That date is correct. This is something I saw in the summer of 2014. I was walking along the West section 40 Acre Lake Trail.  A tree had fallen down next to the lake, and as I passed it I noticed movement in the leave. I slowly moved closer, since I hadn't recognized the movement, and didn't want to scare whatever it was.
It was a Paper Wasp nest!  As I watched, I saw the wasps gathered around the nest, and then I saw some of them start flapping their wings. The wasps did not take off, but instead stood on the branches and the nest as they beat their wings. I believe that the nest was exposed to direct sunlight when the tree fell (the nest would have been shaded while the treee was standing normally); and the wasps were trying to fan the nest with their wings. I shot a picture and some video clips to show this interesting behavior. The clips have been edited together and can be seen at this link.  Paper wasps usually make nests with exposed combs like this--unlike hornets, which enclose their nests in a large envelope.  The bright yellow bands on these wasps help identify these wasps as Polistes exclamans


June 16 and June 27, 2010. I'm going to tell you a true story about a young mother. She needed to feed her babies, but didn't have resources at hand to feed them. So, she went out cruising. She went here. She went there. Around her, there were the sounds of unattached lovers calling for each other. She decided to approach one of these callers; perhaps to help her with her problem. So she picked one, got close, and suddenly stabbed it. She immobilized the young lover and she brought it back to her home and to her offspring. By then, she'd gone beyond acceptable human behavior. But her actions then went from apparently violent to openly horrific. She dragged the lover into a dark room...
...and left one of her offspring with it...
...and then, she locked the room.
She left her young one to eat the immobilized lover--while the lover still alive--or else the baby would starve to death.

I'm speaking, of course, about a Cicada Killer Wasp. Of course they don't follow acceptable human behavior. They aren't human. The females dig tunnels and and then chambers in loose sand or dirt. Then they patrol, looking for Cicadas--which are buzzing out their mating calls. I have read that the wasps will sometimes attack standing Cicadas, or take them as they fly. Then they sting a Cicada, which paralyzes it, and carry it back to burrows that the wasps have dug. There, they will place the paralyzed Cicada in a chamber, place an egg on it, and then wall off the chamber. The egg hatches, and the hatched larva eats the Cicada--which has been kept "fresh" because it's paralyzed and still alive. I've also found another study of Cicada Killers that can be downloaded in .pdf format. This is the link:  Life History and Habits of the Cicada Killer in Ohio .

Some of y'all might remember that I posted some slow-motion video clips of these amazing insects flying around last year. That material can be seen on this page below. This year, they hatched in the same garden, and this time I decided to try to catch some as they flew back to their burrows with prey for their young. It's not easy, since they return from any direction and are really fast--they just appear and hit the burrow. I got two clips, one just usable, and one pretty good. Today's RICKUBISCAM is a cropped frame capture from the newer video clip. The links appear below the images.

                   A QUICK DROP IN                                 HOVERING AROUND A BIT
           Cicada Killer with Cicada clip one (wmv. 4.8 mb)    Cicada Killer with Cicada clip two (wmv. 10 mb)
We've gotten quite a bit of rain in the weeks after I shot the video clips, and I haven't seen any more Cicada Killer activity at the cistern (where I've been filming these) for a while.

05/31/2009-06/21/2009-  In a garden near the Visitor Center at BBSP, there is a large, dirt-filled, brick cistern in the ground. Sometime around the end of May this year, a group of large yellow and black wasps began to fly around the garden and in and out of the cistern. They were Cicada Killer wasps, and most of the wasps patrolling around the garden were males.  The males hatch a bit earlier (up to 2 weeks earlier) than the females, so they pick perching spots and then leave those spots for short flying patrols. They look for females, and also will fly after each other. It can be pretty busy, and we had a number of park visitors coming in alarmed about the "wasps' nest" in the garden. What a great intrepretive opportunity--expecially since the wasps posed almost no threat at all. The males have a sharp protrustion at the end of their abdomen. This is NOT a stinger, but just a false one. Only the females can sting, and they usually sting Cicadas to paralyze them so they can be carried back to the burrows. A female can be pushed until it stings, but they are not aggressive.  Besides lacking this false stinger ( the females' operative one retracts), females can be identified by large "spurs" or paddles on their rear legs.
Since all this activity was going on, and the males would repetitively land, fly, and land again,  I was able to take some interesting pictures of these large wasps.  I approached one of the males as it perched on a post.  When it took off to chase another male, I put my hand on the post, and it perched on my hand. Today's RICKUBISCAM shot is a picture of the wasp on the post. Note: Most of the information I got about these wasps came from a web page (my insect guides didn't have much). That very excellent online source is:  Prof. Chuck Holliday's Cicada Killer Page.  If you really want to learn about these wasps, visit his pages.

                                                                                                                                           Cicada Killer on my hand (slomo at end)wmv 9.3mb)

                              ON MY HAND CLOSER   ----              --    ON MY HAND EVEN CLOSER            THE FALSE STINGER (NON-RETRACTABLE)                 todays RICKUBISCAM

 Directly below are some pictures I shot in 2003, showing a dead female Cicada killer. A co-worker brought it in to ask if I could identify it. These 3 pictures show the broad spurs (or paddles) that the female Cicada Killer has on her last pair of legs.  It is supposed that they help her dig.  The female will dig a burrow, then dig branching burrows. She will then fly off and return with a Cicada for the burrows. She will lay a single egg on a paralyzed Cicada. The egg will hatch and the larva will feed on the Cicada (kept "fresh" because it's still alive and not dead and rotting) until it cocoon . It overwinters in this form,and then pupates and then hatches in the spring.  The adults don't eat meat (preferring sweet plant juices), and don't live long (2 weeks for males, and 4 weeks for females).
                            PRETTY BIG WASP!----           --          THE SPURS ARE VISIBLE                     ONE OF THE SPURS ON A REAR LEG

Finally, the 3 images below are frame grabs from some short video clips put together from footage of the wasps flying. I tried to catch females returning with Cicadas, but there were at least 3 burrows in the cistern, and I couldn't be sure where an incoming wasp would land.  When a female did return, she was landed and inside before I could bring the camera on her. I couldn't catch any of the midair collisions between males either. Remember, even though these wasps seem to be in a group--they are not acting cooperatively. They all are attracted to a preferred nesting site (and may have hatched there).
In my videos,  the subjects might move a bit out of frame, and a bit out of focus for two reasons. Even though capture was at 210 and 420 fps; and playback at 30 fps (about 1/7th or 1/14th that of realtime)--I shot in realtime. Those wasps are fast, and I had to try to keep them in frame as they flew. Slowed down, it looks like it might be easy. HA!  Also, once I'm shooting at that speed, focus is locked. If something moves to far in or out of my focus depth, then it blurs. Enough excuses. I can watch these over and over again. The wasps look beautiful at this speed. Very mechanical, too.

      Cicada Killer at 210 fps wmv 7.6mb               Cicada Killers at 420 fps pt1 wmv 19.8mb    Cicada Killers at 420 fps pt2 wmv 9.0mb

10/11/2006 (8/14/06; 8/10/06; 8/14/05)--I was talking to some Visitors to BBSP last Sunday. It turned out that they had recently moved from Colorado, and I had the opportunity to point out some of our local arthropods. As I did, I realized that I hadn't shown one of our more brightly-colored insects. It also has a nickname that might alarm some. So, here it is. I filmed some of this material in August of 2006, and some in August of 2005. This could indicate that they are more active at this time, but perhaps not.  -
At first glance, the insect in this image -   looks like an ant--a large, hairy ant. But actually, this insect is a wingless, solitary wasp. It's sometimes called a Red Velvet Ant (dasymutilla occidentalis). It is also known as a "Cowkiller". The first image below (ONE) shows the insect near a quarter. The next two clips show other views of the ant (TWO, THREE) inside a petri dish. I wasn't going to let it sting ME. The last two images below (FOUR, FIVE) are frames from short video clips. These images were shot inside, and the artificial lighting gives a "darker" cast to the red colors, and shows a slight iridescent sheen on the wasp. These were taken in 2005. There are two links below images FOUR and FIVE to the clips.
              ONE                                           TWO                                        THREE                                          FOUR                                           FIVE
                                                                                                                                 COWKILLER IN DISH PT. 1  1.08MB    COWKILLER IN DISH PT. 2  1.5MB
According to A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects by Drees and Jackman (C) 1998 (pp. 282-283) This wingless form is the female. The males are marked differently, have wings, and don't sting (this is usually the case, since the stinger on many insects is a modified form of the ovipositor-a hollow structure used for laying eggs by many insects. Some use the ovipositor to drill into wood, or dirt, or other insects before laying eggs. This means that only females would have the ovipositor, and therefore, a stinger.) The females dig to the nesting chambers of ground-nesting bees. They eat a hole through the cocoon where they deposit an egg on the host larva. After hatching, the Cowkiller grub eats the host larva before finally developing into an adult. The female ant fights ferociously and has a painful sting. The name "Cowkiller" refers to the fact that this sting is very painful. So painful that it was said to be able to kill a cow. This is only figurative.
This year, I found a Cowkiller wandering through the grass while I was exercising at Memorial Park. Today's RICKUBISCAM is one of the few usable images I could get at that time. When this wasp breaks cover, or is disturbed, it can run VERY fast, and is hard to capture.  A few days later, I found another one working in the loose dirt under the Observation Tower at 40-Acre Lake.  Compared to the bright sunlight outside, it was a bit difficult to see in the shade under the deck.  I shot some video anyway.  The images below are frames from the video clips. The first clip (image SIX, below) shows the dasymutilla apparently foraging, and then burrowing. Since it is under cover, and I haven't disturbed it, the Cowkiller is moving relatively slowly. The next clip (image SEVEN, EIGHT, below) shows some more movement. Look at image EIGHT and you'll see a red circle. This shows an Antlion pit. In the second clip, it appears that the Antlion is either excavating its pit after the Cowkiller has collapsed it, or else it is trying to trap the Cowkiller (which seems quite optomistic to ME).
I noticed a number of other wasps digging in the area, and they appeared to be making nests. It may be possible that this dasymutilla occidentalis was looking for some of these finished nests to use.

              SIX                                            SEVEN                                      EIGHT

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