How bad is the velvet ant sting? The velvet ant has multiple defensive strategies, but is best known for its extremely painful sting (female only), earning it the nickname of “cow killer,” not because it can kill a cow but because the sting hurts so badly that it feels like it could kill a cow. The sting may be painful, but the venom is not very toxic. Its defenses include the ability to run fast and evasively, warning coloration, stridulatory warning sounds (rubbing together body parts), a chemical secretion, and venom.
Is It an Ant or Not?
Dasymutilla occidentalis (red velvet ant, eastern velvet ant, cow ant or cow killer), is actually not an ant, rather it is a species of parasitoid wasp native to the eastern United States. It is commonly mistaken for a member of the true ant family, as the female is wingless and crawls about like an ant. They are commonly found during the summer months wandering around the yard in urban landscapes and open areas like pastures. They get the “velvet” part of their name from the very fuzzy females, which are wingless and often brightly colored.
Velvet Ant Biology
Unlike social wasps, such as yellow jackets and paper wasps that live in a central nest with a great number of individuals working together, velvet ants are solitary wasps and not aggressive. Males fly in search of females to mate. The mated female will enter a ground nesting bee or wasp nest, and lay eggs on or near the other insect’s larva. They are parasitoids because their larvae emerge and feed on the host’s larvae, killing them. Adult velvet ants feed on nectar.
Things to consider:
- Keep brush away from your house to discourage the nests from insects upon which the velvet ant preys.
- If you come upon one, don’t try to pick it up with your hand. If you do, you’ll probably remember not to the next time!
- Keep an eye out for solitary females on the ground and pay attention to flowers you bring inside for the males of the species.
- How bad is the velvet ant sting? If you see them on the ground, put your shoes back on—you really don’t want step on one!
- Both the male velvet ant and females have a surprisingly tough exoskeleton making them resistant to most chemicals and to killing them by stepping on them. They’re like colorful little tanks.
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