The secret world of wasps, bees & ants

If I say the word “wasp” or “bee” what do you instantly imagine? An annoying wasp buzzing round your burger at a BBQ? a hairy bumble-bee bumping it’s way round your garden flowers? What about this beauty below? a bee, wasp or ant?

Female Velvet Ant

This is a female Velvet Ant Mutilla europaea a type of parasitic wasp. The females are wingless and can apparently pack a powerful sting (so beware!). So why the hell am I telling you about strange looking wingless wasps? Answer: because they are completely and totally fascinating!

On Tuesday I spent the day on Upton Heath (on the edge of Corfe Mullen) with a guy called Stuart Roberts (I hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning his name – I’m sure he will tell me if he does). He’s chairman of the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) and some time ago he foolishly agreed to spend the day with me looking for “stuff” (my words not his) on Upton Heath.

A Cinnabar Caterpillar – OK not a wasp but great to see on it’s favourite food Ragwort

I’m a total novice when it comes to entomology (the scientific study of insects) and know even less about Hymenoptera (an order of insects including bees; wasps; ants; ichneumons; sawflies; gall wasps; etc).

Walking around the heath listening to Stuart as he spotted, caught and recorded different wasps and bees, it was like the lid had been lifted off a jar of sweets – suddenly I was being propelled into a different world full of names I didn’t know; Jewel wasp, Beewolf, Mottled Bee-fly…

The burrow of a Purbeck Mason-wasp

However, there was one name that I had heard before – the Purbeck Mason-wasp. It’s recently been included on a set of stamps issued by the Royal Mail of endangered UK insects – and we were on the hunt for it. It deserves a post all to itself, so for now I’m just going to leave you with a picture of it’s burrow.

A library picture or one I took earlier? Wait and see…

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21 thoughts on “The secret world of wasps, bees & ants

  1. Um – that’s ragwort with the cinnabar caterpillar. It’s a prohibited plant round here as it’s poisonous to cattle. Fortunately (!) there’s still enough around to keep the cinnabars in business.
    Wonderful to go round with an expert like that. I’m looking forward to your next post.

  2. Hi Dragonstar. You caught me out… that is indeed “ragwort”. They have actually introduced these larvae into New Zealand, Australia and North America to control ragwort…

  3. ooo Ive always wanted to see a velvet ant – in fact Im not sure Ive ever even seen a photo.

    Those royal mail stamps were a bit of a jopke because the Royal mail issued tem just after announcing they were about to flatten a site near me which had at least 6 endangered species of insect. Now, after lots of campaigning things arn’t so certain but could still go ahead 😦

  4. Neil. Glad I’ve shown you something you haven’t seen before! I’d heard about the joke with Royal Mail… Fingers crossed that the site near you gets saved.

  5. I thought I’d commented on this?!
    I’ve never seen a Velvet Ant (wasp!) – what a strange-looking wee beastie!
    Thanks for telling us all about it!

  6. I think I may have a ton of these (mason wasps) in my backyard, sadly I’m in the US so I can’t share them with you…I’m wondering if mason wasps sting? If they are becoming rare I would hate to kill them, but they are very close to our house/deck and I definitely don’t want a swarm of angry wasps after me.

  7. Hi Amy. No don’t worry. The Purbeck Mason Wasp is very rare (and only found in a very small area of the UK). There are lots of other types of Mason Wasps… you would need to talk to one of your conservation organisations to find out if they are protected and whether they sting. If you find out what they are, and their life cycle you may even become addicted to watching them!

  8. I really enjoyed learning about bees when I lived on an organic farm in Australia for a month or so. Their societies are so complex and the chemistry behind their honey is so interesting I spent days helping out and harvesting the honey. I can see how they become addictive – especially if you can make a living out of it.

  9. Hi Linda. How brilliant… going out harvesting honey. That must have been great. Yes there societies are really complex (I hadn’t really realised just how complex) but totally fascinating! Thanks for stopping by. Jane

  10. Pingback: wasp scientific name

  11. we found a velvet ant on our table yesterday at friends place and it made a funny squeeking sound when it got stuck somewhere 😀

  12. I have found 1 here in Kentucky…was wondering if u knew what kind of wingless wasp it is…its about 1/2 inch long…brownish red with bright orangy-pink spots on it abdomen…with 6 or 7 black stripes on the main end of its abdomen…any reply welcome…Thanks

  13. Hi yesterday 24.6.2001 I found a weird insect in my kitchen, I searched it online and it came up as a black-slip wasp or a Pimpla rufipes I want to know are they dangerous or anything?

  14. hi i went to grabbist hill nr dunster-edge of exmoor,i was looking for heath fritillary-i got some great video——but i also came across this velvet ant,it had an orangy thorax,black head and body,with four patches of golden- yellow hair, with a strip of the same across the abdomain,it made powerfull high pitched buzzing,it sounded at the time dangrous,just as well i did not pick it up as i know now it has a powerfull defensive sting,phil from banjo.

    • Many thanks for your comment about the velvet ant. I don’t suppose you got a photo did you? It would be great to record this. Feel free to email it to me at jane@naturewatched.org along with a location/grid ref. Fantastic to see and a great spot! Jane

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