You’re out in your garden or walking in the woods when you spot what looks like an ant — until it suddenly takes flight. When wings appear, you know that it isn’t an ant — but it could be one of the many insects that engage in ant mimicry. If you spot bugs that look like ants with wings, here are a few of the things they could be.
1. Straight From The Old Testament
Latin Name: Ocypus Olens
Common Name: Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle, Devil’s Footman, Devil’s Coachman, Devil’s Steed, Cock-Tail Beetle, Coffin Cutter
Devil’s Coach Horse beetles are found widely throughout Europe, especially Ireland and Great Britain, as well as Northern Africa. Humans have brought them to the Americas, Australia, and parts of Asia. They are a species of rove beetle, which are known for their resemblance to ants thanks to their segmented bodies, dark coloration, and long legs and antennae.
The prevalence of Devil’s Coach Horse beetles and their unique characteristics have made them a creature of folklore and superstition; they are said to have been present in the Garden of Eden and ate the core of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. British folklore taught that killing one of the beetles erased seven sins. The association with the devil has been present since the Middle Ages.
It likely came from the beetle’s stink glands on its abdomen. When it is threatened or injured, it releases a potent, foul smell from the glands. Devil’s Coach Horse beetles usually make their homes in damp leaf litter, such as in forests, fields, and gardens.
They are hunters, surviving on a variety of invertebrates — often woodlice, earthworms, and slugs. They have a pair of sharp pincers that they may use to bite defensively and also use to catch and kill their prey.
2. Velvet You Won’t Want to Touch
Latin Name: Mutillidae
Common Name: Velvet Ant, Cow Ant, Cow Killer
Velvet ants are actually not ants at all — they are a type of wasp. But they resemble the species so closely (with a thick coat of fur) that they are widely referred to as ants. While the males have wings, the females are large and wingless.
Their distinct hair appears in a thick patch on their abdomen and thorax and is usually brightly colored, often orange or red, to warn predators away. Velvet ants have an extremely painful bite. They are colloquially known as “cow killers” because it is said that the pain is enough to kill livestock.
While their venom is not particularly dangerous to humans, the pain from a velvet ant sting can last for up to half an hour. The species has an extremely thick, tough exoskeleton, which keeps them safe from predators and acts as armor when they invade the nests of other insects to hunt. It also improves hydration, helping them retain moisture in hot or dry environments.
While the juveniles of the species hunt for prey, hunting for other insects’ larvae, the adults strictly survive on nectar. Some types of velvet ants are nocturnal, though the females may emerge during the day to look for food. Unlike most ant or wasp species, velvet ants are solitary and do not live in a communal nest; instead, they invade the nests of other insects to lay their eggs.
Female velvet ants deposit their young among the larvae of the host insects to keep them safe and provide a ready food source. Some types of velvet ants are parasitic, eventually killing their host insects’ nests.
3. What Long Horns You Have?
Latin Name: Cyrtophorus Verrucosus
Common Name: Ant-Like Longhorn Beetle
If you have ever seen what looks like an ant crawling all over your garden flowers, it might have been an Ant-Like Longhorn Beetle. These herbivorous beetles thrive off of pollen and nectar, which means they spend a lot of time around flowers. They are particularly attracted to plum flowers.
These beetles have a slightly fuzzy body and long antennae, which give them their name. These are the most obvious sign that they are not ants, though they look very similar both in their shape and size. They move slightly faster than the average ant, often scuttling rapidly over flowers — and of course, they can fly, which instantly distinguishes them from true ants.
Though the adults of the species are famously nectar eaters, larvae subsist on dead wood of all kinds. Longhorn beetles are common on forest floors, where they have plenty of shelter and food. They are found throughout North America, including the United States and Canada.
Not much is known about their life cycle and lifespan, but other types of Longhorn Beetle live roughly two years. Adults are most active for just a few weeks in the spring before mating begins. Scientists are still learning more about how these unique beetles live and interact with other species.
4. Better Than a Brita Filter
Latin Name: Plecoptera
Common Name: Stonefly
Stoneflies are a type of small terrestrial fly that is found all over the world, only excepting Antarctica. Depending on the specific species, they may resemble ants with wings due to their size and coloration. Stoneflies are known for living in moist environments, usually around water, but cannot tolerate any level of water pollution; therefore, their presence has historically been used to indicate sources of clean water.
Though they have wings, stoneflies cannot fly far. They only fly in brief bursts, such as while laying eggs. During this process, the female flies over a water source and deposits her eggs mid-air into the water.
The eggs — up to a thousand in a single clutch — are covered in a thick, sticky goo that helps them adhere to rocks or sticks even in the water. Juveniles may eat aquatic invertebrates such as algae, but adult stoneflies are herbivorous and survive on dead plant matter. They have a large pair of mandibles that they use to shred and chew vegetation.
Stoneflies have a unique life cycle. They may spend up to four years in their larval stage, molting dozens of times. During this time, they remain almost completely in the water.
When nymphs reach the adult stage, which may last for mere weeks, they leave the water, though they stay close by for the remainder of their life.
5. Every Farmer’s Worst Nightmare
Latin Name: Symphyta
Common Name: Sawfly, Wood Wasp
Sawflies are small fly-like insects that may look similar to ants, wasps, or bees. They get their name from their unique saw-like mouths, which they use to dissect plants. Interestingly, sawflies use this cutting method not to eat, but to create spaces inside vegetation in which to deposit their eggs.
Most types of sawflies are strictly herbivorous, though certain ones may be parasitic. Prehistoric sawflies evolved to be parasitic, usually laying their eggs in the nests of other insects to provide protection and food for their larvae. While some species of sawfly still does this, most lay their eggs inside plants, which then serve as food for the newly-hatched young.
They can be mistaken for wasps as well as ants because of their ovipositor, which looks like a stinger. Sawflies have a short lifespan, usually only living as adults for seven to nine days. Before this, they undergo complete metamorphosis, burrowing in leaf litter or plant matter for protection while they molt.
Because of their propensity for drilling into plants, sawflies can be a major pest for home gardeners and farmers, destroying crops for their homes and food. They commonly eat plant sap, nectar, and pollen, and may spread disease from plant to plant. Sawflies are found all over the world but are more common in the Northern hemisphere.
6. Can We Call You “Stony” For Short?
Latin Name: Scydmaeninae
Common Name: Ant-Like Stone Beetle, Scydmaenine
Ant-Like Stone Beetles are beetles that have evolved to closely resemble ants. In fact, they belong to a whole order of beetles described as “ant-like beetles” because of their physical similarities, including a hard exoskeleton, segmented body, and long legs and antennae. These species can vary widely in physical characteristics, but most a fairly small.
They are found all over the world, and many have been observed throughout Europe. These beetles prefer moist environments, often burrowing in leaf litter and mold, such as on forest floors. They look so much like ants that some types make their homes in ant nests, tricking the other insects into accepting them as their own.
This allows them to take advantage of the colony’s protection and resources. While some types are strictly herbivorous, many kinds of Ant-Like Stone Beetles prey on mites and the larvae of other insects. They often use their long, sharp pincers to capture and kill prey.
Because there are so many types of Ant-Like Stone Beetles (some estimates put the observed number at roughly 4,500), and because they are secretive in nature, we don’t yet know a lot about their behavior or life cycle. These clever insects are experts at disguise, even fooling other beetles and ants.
7. What’s That Eating My House?
Latin Name: Termitoidae
Common Name: Termite, Wood Ant, White Ant
Termites are a common pest in homes, and most people know what they are. However, they can be difficult to distinguish from ants, especially at certain points in their development. They are actually closely related to cockroaches, but their unique appearance has earned them the nickname “white ants.”
Termites live in nests, which include an elaborate caste system, much like ants. Most of the worker termites are blind and do not have wings, while the reproductive caste is winged. Termites are found all over the world, in almost every climate.
They famously infest homes to eat the cellulose found in building materials; their unique digestive system helps them effectively process nutrients from wood. They can also be found infesting trees, forests, and anywhere that offers access to dead wood, brush, and leaf matter. Their role in breaking down dead material is vital in the ecosystem.
In natural environments, the termites’ nests are usually made of mud, feces, and partially digested plant matter. These nests are elaborate, with defense systems and “rooms” for larvae, eating, rest, and reproduction, and are considered completely self-sufficient. Termites’ have an incomplete life cycle which revolves from larva to nymph to adult.
Termite queens are some of the longest-lived insects on record, living as long as 50 years.
8. A Natural Flower Lover
Latin Name: Malporus Formicarius
Common Name: Ant-Like Flower Beetle
Also in the family Anthicidae is the Ant-Like Flower Beetle. This tiny beetle may be black or red, like several species of ant. It has an extended abdomen and segmented body, with a small head and long legs and antennae.
These beetles are omnivorous, eating pollen, fungi, and a variety of other plant matter as well as small arthropods. They usually make their homes in thick leaf matter, such as on forest floors. They may also live under rocks or large pieces of wood.
These beetles have a keen sense of smell, which they use to find chemical substances such as cantharidin. This natural terpene, which is secreted by certain beetle species, may help deter predators. Not much else is known about the behavior of these beetles, including their lifecycle, lifespan, or reproduction.
This may be due in part to the huge family they belong to — there are as many as 3,500 distinct species that have been observed in the Anthicidae family. Scientists continue to study these unique beetles, but there is much information yet to be found!
9. Down on the Forest Floor
Latin Name: Aderidae
Common Name: Ant-Like Leaf Beetle
Although the name is very similar, Ant-Life Leaf Beetles are classified differently from Ant-Like Flower and Stone Beetles. They are similar in shape and size to ants, with a large, more rounded abdomen. They have unique fuzzy eyes, which are on either side of their head.
These beetles may be found in many places around the world, but they most often live in tropical or subtropical climates. They get their name from their preferred habitat — burrowing into leaf litter and decaying plant matter, usually on forest floors or under trees. Adults often stay under vegetation but may lay their eggs in decaying wood and plant matter, or even in the nests of other insects.
This helps shelter and feed the larvae until they are mature. Though the majority of their diet consists of plants, immature beetles may eat the eggs or larvae of other insect species.
10. A Very Sneaky Little Guy
Latin Name: Paussinae
Common Name: Ant Nest Beetle, Paussine, Flanged Bombardier Beetle
The Ant Nest Beetle, also known as Paussine or Flanged Bombardier Beetle, is a type of beetle that earns its name from its predatory behavior toward ant colonies. Although to a human eye, there are some marked differences, the Ant Nest Beetle looks similar enough to ants to fool other insects. There are approximately 800 species of Ant Nest Beetles, whose physical characteristics vary significantly.
Most have a smooth body without the segments seen in most ant-like insects, though some may have a distinct thorax. They also have long legs and antennae. More than their physical characteristics, however, these beetles rely on hormonal secretions and sound mimicry to fool ants into accepting them into their nest.
This gives them access to the protection, food sources, and even grooming habits of the ant colony. They also prey on the ants themselves, especially the larvae. To do this, Ant Nest Beetles puncture the insect with their mandibles and drain its body.
Because of the secretive lifestyle of these beetles, not much is known about them. Researchers believe that they enter ant colonies while they are juveniles, and that males may move between nests to mate. The species probably has a short lifespan, particularly the males, who likely die soon after mating.