Red Velvet Mite: Ant Predator?

You may be wondering why I am showing this in an ant blog.

Given that it has eight legs rather than six, it is definitely not an ant.

Do you know what this pudgy, bright red creature is?

This is a red velvet mite.

Red velvet mites are quite common in the Sonoran Desert in the summer, particularly after the summer rains or “monsoons” start.

There is some question as to what the adult red velvet mites eat. For years I had thought that they were predators of ant and termite queens, which also swarm after the summer monsoons.

In fact, two prominent entomologists from Arizona have at least implied that red velvet mites eat ant and termite queens in their book, Learning About and Living With Insects of the Southwest: How to Identify Helpful, Harmful and Venomous Insects by Dr. Floyd G. Werner and Carl Olson. On page 128 they say the emergence of the mites coincides with the swarms of ants and termites, so the mites “find easy prey.”

I have recently read, however, that red velvet mite adults eat the eggs of insects.

Anyone have any ideas?

I did find a photograph on BugGuide of a mite with an ant. But I also found this one of an ant carrying a red velvet mite immature.

It is very possible that different species have different food preferences.

Disclosures: The book was my personal copy. Also, I am an affiliate for Amazon. If you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

Leafcutter Ant Mound and Antlions

The leafcutter ants were busy in Tucson a few weeks ago.

Check out this mound the ants had constructed.

Most of the workers I saw were carrying clumps of dirt/pebbles.

The worker dumped her load and then went back for more.

The surface of the mound looks like a boulder field from the perspective of the ant.

Harvester ants and other types ants also have pebbles on the surface of their mounds. (Harvester ants decorate their mounds with other things as well.)

A curious docent wondered why I was taking photographs of the ants. After wishing the mound was in the sun, she volunteered to show me another mound she knew of that she thought might be in the sunlight.

Turns out it wasn’t in the sun, but there was something else there.

You see those cords? A crew that was stringing Christmas lights had trampled the leafcutters’ mound. I’m not sure whether the ants simply reverted to another entrance or whether they abandoned the nest.

I was intrigued to see those circles though. Do you know what they are?

Those are pits made by larval antlions (See previous post about antlions.)

Antlions seem to prefer fine, powdery soil (The Antlion Pit).

So, do you think perhaps ants may decorate their mounds with pebbles in an effort to keep down antlions, as well as other species of ants as has been suggested? Do you know of anyone who has studied this possibility?


What is an armadillo doing in a blog about ants?

(Photo retrieved from Wikimedia)

Armadillos are distant relatives of anteaters, which might explain why some species also love to eat ants.

All 21 species of armadillos are covered with the jointed armor that gives them their common name, a Spanish word for “little armored one.” Armadillos are found throughout South, Central and parts of North America.

Bet you didn’t know the biggest, called the giant armadillo, weighs 121 pounds (55kg) and can grow to 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) long. That’s a big armadillo!

The armadillos found in Texas and the Southern United States are called the nine-banded armadillos. They are not originally from North America, but have spread to the United States in the last few centuries. Nine-banded armadillos feed on not just regular ants, but the imported fire ants, making them brave and useful creatures indeed.

Woodpeckers That Specialize on Ants

This week we’ve been watching The Life of Birds DVD set narrated by Sir David Attenborough.  Have you ever seen the series? If you love nature you should, because it is so well done.

In one scene a rufous woodpecker from India is shown breaking open an ant nest and then busily eating ants. It piqued my curiosity, so I decided to see what else I could find out. Although I didn’t find the exact scene online to show you, I did find videos of rufous woodpeckers eating ants.

This first video is rather dark, but shows two young birds feeding on ants.

It appears that these woodpeckers from the Kerala region of India specialize on ants. Vishnudas (2008) cites an earlier worker from 1912 who found 2,600 ants in the stomach of a rufous woodpecker.

Although this video is shaky, it shows another woodpecker going after ants. (Makes you appreciate the quality of the footage from the Attenborough DVD.) It cuts away as the ants come rushing out of their nest.

It turns out that Rufous Woodpeckers, Micropternus brachyurus, not only use ants as their main food source, but also depend on Crematogaster ants for nesting sites. The birds work together to open up the carton nests of Crematogaster ants, and then build their own nests inside.

In his paper, Vishnudas also reports that several other species of birds follow the rufous woodpeckers and feed on the escaping ants when the rufous woodpeckers tear ant nests open.

In North America, there are woodpeckers specialize on ants, as well.

Northern flickers probably eat the most ants. They spend much of their time feeding on the ground around anthills. One flicker was found to have 5,000 ants in its stomach.

Doesn’t it look like the flicker is trying to dig out larvae and pupae rather than workers?

Pileated woodpeckers often cut slots into tree trunks or logs to get at carpenter ant nests inside. The woodpeckers will continue to return to the same opening over time, picking off ants that peer through the opening or that rush out to protect the nest.

It is fascinating to find out about these birds that are so dependent on ants for survival.

Have you seen any of the Attenborough series?

Vishnudas, C. K. 2008. Crematogaster ants in shaded coffee plantations: a critical food source for Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus and other forest birds. Indian Birds. 4:9-11. (Available from Google Docs as a free .pdf)

The The Life of Birds  DVD set:

The Life of Birds  book by David Attenborough

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