'Red velvet' ants aren't so sweet

  • Garden Phlox Phlox paniculata
Garden Phlox Phlox paniculata (Christine McComas, Baltimore…)
August 01, 2012|By Ellen Nibali, Special to The Baltimore Sun

My friend and I both saw a bright red fuzzy insect on the ground. Never saw anything like it before! She thinks it's an ant, but I think it's a wasp. What say you?

Red velvet ants are wasps, but the females are wingless and that's why they look like ants darting about on the ground. The adult males have wings but no red hair like the females. Males also can't sting, but the females pack quite a wallop, earning them the nicknames of "cow-killer" and "mule-killer." Most of the body is black, but in the insect world red coloring means danger, and they aren't kidding. This solitary native wasp lays its eggs in the pupa of other insects, especially bees and wasps. The eggs hatch, then larvae feed and spin a cocoon, all inside the poor victim. The female also squeaks when you hold it, but this is not recommended except with forceps.

I have something that looks like a bagworm on my cherry laurel, but it can't be a bagworm because they feed on needled evergreens. I'm sending you a photo through your HGIC website so you can identify it.

It's a bagworm, all right. Bagworms will branch out to other plants occasionally, usually only one or two here and there. We've even seen them on lamp posts and hanging from house gutters. That's usually later in the season when they don't need to eat and the "worm" inside the bag, if it's a male, will be metamophasizing into a moth, and the female (which can't fly) is awaiting his visit. Pull all bagworms off your tree and drown them in soapy water. One of our callers fashioned a nifty bagworm-bagging device from a pole with a paperclip on the end to snare the high bags he couldn't easily reach. Callers with yearly infestation should read our bagworm publication online and get a jump on them next year.

University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information. Call 800-342-2507 or send a question to the website at hgic.umd.edu.

Plant of the week

Garden Phlox

Phlox paniculata

Looking for a gorgeous perennial for your midsummer garden? Check out garden phlox, reliable performers year after year, often seeding themselves to increase your pleasure. Exuberant garden phlox burst into domed clusters of fragrant flowers in a broad range of colors, including white, pink, fuchsia, violet, purple, and even orange. Some feature center eyes of contrasting color. Phlox now are available in hundreds of varieties and many heights, from 18-inch dwarfs to the more typical 3- to 4-foot stunners. They are easy to grow in average, moist but well-drained soil in full to part sun. Pick a location with good air circulation. Thinning the number of stems in a clump also helps.— Christine McComas

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