The Cow Killer and Other Misnomers

Talk about an insect with a misleading identity, meet the Eastern Velvet Ant a.k.a. Red Velvet Ant. Looks and sounds pretty and upon a cursory look, one would think it is a great common name…except for the fact that it is not an ant. The wingless females crawl along the ground and look like GIANT ants, giving rise to this general common name. The males have wings and do fly, behaving very much like solitary parasitoid wasps that they are. They are native to the eastern United States.

female travels by foot since it has no wings.

Now, this particular genus Dasymutilla spp., (likely occidentalis) has another interesting common name: Cow Killer. Mind you, these insects are likely incapable of killing a cow. Apparently since the female has the capability of repeated painful stings, someone who was barefoot in a cow pasture stepped on one declaring a sting so intense that they felt it could kill a cow…or a mule, depending on who’s common name you prefer to use. The males, on the other hand, don’t sting.

Males do fly

The females are quite eye-catching and you can’t miss them scurrying along through the grass with their Large, BRIGHT red and black hairy bodies which have the look of fine velvet. They also are so fast that it’s a battle to get a decent photo.  They aren’t known to be particularly aggressive, but still, you should give them a wide berth.

Even hiding in the ground covers, their bright coloring is hard to miss

They are a parasite of mostly bumblebee larva, but food can include flies, beetles, bees and other wasps. They apparently use the “hard stages” of their prey (e.g., pupae, ootheca and cocoons) and they are said to have a heck of a time locating potential hosts, thus their dizzying quest as they crawl endless paths in their search.

This female was on a mission to get away from the camera

Their beautiful coloring helps protect them from potential predators and it seems that it works well enough that there are no known predators of the velvet ant.

So, gaze at the beautiful velvet look of the female from afar and keep your shoes on.

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  1. says

    Very common bug here’bouts, but I’ve never suspected a winged version existed. If I’ve seen the male, I didn’t connect it to the cow-killer ant, it’s a different-looking critter… Will now know what I’m seeing… And will be attempting to get a pic…

    Those guise r some kewl bugs!
    stone recently posted..Monarch butterflies

  2. says

    We have them in droves in GA. I was infested with them for awhile and had to take out several (14 to be exact) yellow jacket nests to get the red velvet ant population down. Their sting is incredibly painful to put it mildly, and when I say infested, I mean they were everywhere. It’s made me keep my immediate house clear of yellow jacket nests since. I could not afford the dogs or kids being stung. Most bugs I am ok with but I give these guys a wide berth.
    Karyl Seppala recently posted..Extreme Nerd

    • says

      I’m glad you pointed out that they can cause large infestations. prior to this week I’d rarely seen more than one at a time.

      There were so many males this past week flying arround the patio that I had to duck to keep from having them run into me. I’ve taken to the fly swatter to get the numbers down, and am having somewhat success. I did squish a female too and am keeping an eye out for more of them. I’m just thankful that the males don’t sting. It makes swatting at them a less scarey proposition.
      Loret T. Setters recently posted..As one disappears another moves in


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