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Bug Hunt: Fuzzy Reddish Nonflying Ant That Is Actually A Wasp

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This summer NPR's Geoff Brumfiel is trying to kill time with his kids. So he is taking them insect hunting. And this trip, they found something on the ground they expected to see in the sky.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It might be the most dad thing I've ever done.

Forward march.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Hup, two, three, four, pick it up, two, three, four.

BRUMFIEL: Forcing my kids to walk through the woods. But these are desperate times, and so we patrol, looking for interesting bugs in the dirt. The kids find them, I snap a photo, and we look them up later for fun.

What'd you see?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I saw an ant.

BRUMFIEL: An ant? Let's keep moving. Let's see what else we can see that's a little bigger than an ant.

But I did snap a photo because this ant was - I don't know. It was different. It was fuzzy and reddish with some white patches on its back. And when I showed the photo to entomologist Demian Gomez from the University of Florida, I was in for a surprise.

DEMIAN GOMEZ: It's actually not an ant. It's actually a wasp.

BRUMFIEL: What we saw was a wingless ground wasp. And it turns out that wasps without wings look like ants because they're close relatives.

GOMEZ: You know, wasps, bees, ants are all of the same group. So they're all kind of, like, related. They evolved from the same group.

BRUMFIEL: Sammy Ramsey is a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist who specializes in bees and wasps.

SAMMY RAMSEY: I'm glad you guys didn't pick it up.

BRUMFIEL: He says the sting of this wasp is really painful. I think of wasps and bees as living in hives, but Ramsey says there are many species like this one that live alone. In fact...

RAMSEY: There are more species of solitary wasps than there are social wasps.

BRUMFIEL: This particular one uses its stinger to catch larger insects and put them in its underground burrow for its larvae to eat. Burrowing underground is also a trick used by lots of species of bees and wasps.

RAMSEY: On hot days, going underground is a wonderful way of keeping your larvae from getting too hot, keeping your body from overheating when you've got your own - pretty much an air conditioning system of the ground itself.

BRUMFIEL: So the next time you're out, if you see a lone ant on the ground that looks kind of weird, maybe leave it alone.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY MCGRIFF'S "BLUE JUICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.