Unknown ant-like insect
July 16, 2010
Location:  Virginia
Okay, out in my yard today in Virginia, I encountered a bug I’ve never seen in my life. It’s mostly shaped like an ant, only massive like the size of a bee or such. It’s a deep, bright red with a couple black stripes across its abdomen and appears to have a somewhat velvety texture (though I didn’t touch it to make sure). It does not possess any wings. Normally, I’d just let it go but I have two small nephews staying with me right now and don’t want any harm to come to them.

Cow Killer

Hi Deimos,
Congratulations on being the first person to use our brand new form.  We hope our readership likes our new form and that it makes submitting identification requests easier.  Your insect is a Velvet Ant known as a Cow Killer,
Dasymutilla occidentalis.  We hope you heeded the warning colors, because Velvet Ants are actually flightless female wasps that can sting.  The common name Cow Killer refers to the sting being so painful it might kill a cow.  Though the sting could not kill a cow, it is none the less reported to be quite painful.

37 Responses to Cow Killer

  1. I’ve heard stories of cows actually eating these (by accident) while grazing and were stung in the throat when being swallowed and did indeed die. Just a story-not much proof but something to consider.

  2. farmer fred says:

    Many years ago when I was 9 or 10 years old I saw one of these velvet ants for the first time. It was beautiful so I scooped it up in my hands to take home to show my mother. Before I made it home it stung me and I can say that it was the worst insect sting that I can remember, but I did not die. 🙂 I see them frequently and let them go on their way.

  3. shadowspawn says:

    My father pointed one of these out to me when I was about 4 years old on a farm in Delaware. The thing that shocked me the most (and makes me avoid all wasps like the plague) was how it stings. He took a piece of styrofoam and agitated the thing until it reared it’s abdomen above its head and the styrofoam actually vibrated as it was attacked. He called it a cow killer too, but didn’t say it could kill them, it would most likely make them bolt once stung, like a snake could, and that stinger would get through their hide on their feet.

    • bugman says:

      Dear shadowspawn,
      Thank you so much for this anecdotal information. First hand observational information like this is so important to our website.

  4. 22AGS says:

    In south Georgia in the early ’60s, farmers used to tell me that this wasp got its name by getting into the cloven hoofs of cows and stinging them there. The cow would then run madly off and sometimes be injured or fall, breaking it’s leg. Thus the name, as the lame cow would then have to be put down.

  5. 22AGS says:

    This story is indeed about as close to fact as possible. The hoof is one of the few places where the cows couldn’t do a thing about the wasp, as it couldn’t be reached. This is a great site Bugman, I expect to learn quite a bit. South Florida certainly has its share of native and non-natives to keep us guessing, and your site is a tremendous tool for identifying these multi-legged/antennaed/eyed/winged/ etc etc little monsters! LOL Thanks!

  6. drlazer says:

    I nearly picked one up the other day but my daugheter stopped me. We made a comic after finding the name “cow killer” on this site.
    Thanks, BugMan.


  7. jgillim2009 says:

    These things are so hard to kill !!! You have to put complete pressure on them and still step on them and move your foot about 10 times before you can actually kill them !! I hate being mean and cruel, but I am one who cannot stand spiders, insects or anything of the nature! I have two sons, one who is 6 and another who is 2, and I am scared they may have an allergic reaction and I hate making them put shoes on when going outside to play, we have a small farm and it seems like we find these cow killers, especially around my flower beds around the front porch!

    • hrtnrse says:

      My first encounter of this colorful and beautiful insect was in Arkansas. I am not a cruel person either,but I did try to step on it. It did nothing. I tried to stomp on it and it was still very much alive. I finally had to get a large tool to kill it. I had no idea what it was. A local person told me about this cow killer and after I looked up the information about it I stay very clear of it and the male that flies.It indeed was extremely hard to kill. I truly hope I never experience it’s sting!

  8. Scott says:

    I messed around with what looked like and probably was a cow killer in south GA when I was about 12. I tried to kill it but couldn’t so I put a glass over it on the ground where I found it. It was very agitated from my messing with it and started to make a loud, for a bug, noise. I left and returned later that day to find some ants trying to get to the killer. It was still making that noise and it seamed as if the ants were responding the cow killers calls. Are ants attracted to cow killers distress calls?

  9. Ken Keller says:

    Most likely the ants responded to the wasp’s distress call in hope of finding prey for their colony.

  10. Karen Ensworth says:

    This is the first I’ve seen this site and I like it! I moved to Northern Florida last August from northwest Pennsylvania. I know all the bugs and animals and trees and flowers, etc. from that area. BUT, I have no idea of all that is here in Carrabelle, Florida, in the water or on land. It just so happens that one of my neighbors pointed out a cow killer to me 3 weeks ago. He said he hadn’t seen one in years but that I should stay away from them. He also said that they are almost impossible to kill.
    I was just walking out in my back yard, with my little dog, when I came across one by my bird bath. Of course, I was freaked out and tried to kill it before it would hurt my dog. I could not kill it by stepping on it so I finally found a discarded oyster shell and cut the horrible creature in half. It still is living!!!! How can I get rid of it?!?!?!? I didn’t used to be a ninny up North but I am still trying to get used to the strange wildlife here. Don’t get me wrong …. I love my home and the people and the area, I just don’t want to get hurt. I am a 64 yr. old woman and loving to learn about new things.

  11. Steve says:

    I’m northerner living in South Carolina and just came across one of these cow killer bugs while I was out searching the yard for a snake that had just bitten my dog. “Crazy Day” .Just would like to say that after reading your forum I’m feeling much better knowing more information about these insects. There seems to be so many different kinds of hazards living in the south. Thanks for the info

  12. beth prisoc kelley says:

    If you enjoy learning, please learn to not kill any bug due to fear or possible ignorance of its’ capabilities re harm to humans. I thank you, as do the crawly creatures.

  13. Laine says:

    Why would you kill an insect outdoors…or—in most cases— indoors, for that matter? Velvet ants won’t sting if they’re not being messed with. Instead of killing them out of some wrongheaded fear for your children’s safety, wouldn’t a better approach be to teach your children not to touch them but to appreciate them? They are a stunningly beautiful insect, and you should feel fortunate to see them…and teach your kids the same. Regardless, this site isn’t the proper forum to post about the difficulty of killing them.

    • bugman says:

      Thanks for providing your comment. Though we try to educate the public to appreciate and respect the lower beasts, in many cases our efforts are futile.

  14. Manuel says:

    I was told that if a cow were to lay down on the “cow killers”nest, or pile, that they would get stung so many times that it would die. Now I don’t know if these”cow killers”have nests, or if they live in colonies?

  15. Brenda says:

    We saw one of these today at a state park in Delaware. It was quite fast and it we just observed it. We noticed it when it was about six inches away from my 76 year old mom’s foot. So glad she didn’t agitate it or get stung by it! It was an incredible looking insect. Thanks for helping me identify it on this site! Great info!

  16. Linda Burdick says:

    I just saw one of these today, in my front yard in Dover, Delaware. It was indeed beautiful. I wanted to capture it, to photograph it, never having seen anything like it before. I thought about picking it up, but it looked wasp-like, and such a brightly colored insect reminded me of poisonous frogs. Glad I chose to run for a glass jar to capture it, but sorry to say it disappeared before my return.
    What a treat, just to see something so beautiful. Beauty is everywhere, isn’t it?

  17. Richard Old says:

    Perhaps this story is unfit for your readers, but I thought you might enjoy it. One of my first jobs out of college was as a botanist in SE Oregon. The first day in the field my boss went with me to “show me the ropes”. This part of the state is very sparsely populated and we were in an area at least 50 miles from the nearest civilization. I was examining a rare plant when my boss suddenly let out a scream I can still hear, yanked down his pants and began leaping about in a most fantastic manner. Turns out a velvet ant had crawled up his pant leg and stung him on a very sensitive part of his anatomy (unfortunately, I actually observed the offending creature et al.) I had to drive him back to the office with the contents of our ice chest held firmly in his lap.
    The funniest part was how from that point onward he avoided contact with me at all cost and I was free to do my job without any supervision.

  18. Cheryl says:

    We too have noticed a Cow Killer here in our backyard in Charlotte, NC. We have young Grandbabies and a small dog. All the information here on your site is great. I have to say that before I knew what this insect was I was able to have it climb onto a toy and I placed outside of our fence, it didn’t seem aggressive, but did move very fast She returned and graced us with her presence yet again today. I don’t want to kill her…I live all creatures but, also don’t want our Grandbabies, one of which is very highly allergic to bites, or our small dog stung. What can anyone suggest to keep them at bay? Very concerned! Thank you

  19. Cheryl says:

    I haven’t seen any Cow Killers this year yet. It was late in July last year before they appeared and was wondering if later in the summer is when they are out? Thank you

    • bugman says:

      We suspect they tend to appear when weather conditions are correct. According to BugGuide, Florida sightings have been reported from April to September. Other states data are listed as well. You did not provide a location.

  20. Jim Gibson says:

    I have lived in Florida for almost 50 years and have played with these ants (wasps) my entire life. They do give a distress “squeak” when held down with a twig and that is a good way to see their amazing stinger in action. I am an avid outdoorsman and have been stung or bitten by just about every bug in Florida over the years. As a teenager, I was stung several times by a very large cowkiller (we called them Devil Ants) when I put on a shoe I had left outdoors overnight. It was very similar to being stung by a honeybee or large hornet. The four sting sites became swollen and feverish over the next few days. It was painful for sure but nowhere near the sting of a bumblebee. I once took a shot from a bumblebee under my armpit while working and it left a hole in me that you could put your little finger in. The cowkiller was a piece of cake compared to that one. It is similar to a typical large wasp sting.

  21. NCBek says:

    My husband and I just witnessed a cow killer carry off a beautiful garden orb spider that had created a web next to the back door. It was a sad sight to see. The spider was pretty big maybe the size of a half dollar but the cow killer was dragging it across our deck. This was a male because it had wings. We live in northeastern coastal NC. This summer is the first time I’ve seen these insects.

    • bugman says:

      We suspect you saw a Spider Wasp in the family Pompilidae and not a male Cow Killer. Male wasps do not provision nests and according to BugGuide, the Cow Killer “Invades the nest of bumble bees, especially Bombus fraternus. Female finds a host nest, digs down and deposits one egg near brood chamber. Larva enters the host brood chamber, kills host larvae, feeds on them, then pupates in the brood chamber.”

  22. David Jackson says:

    I enjoyed all the anecdotal info. I still don’t know very much about the cow killer especially where they create their nests. How large are the nests. I live in central Virginia and see them usually in late July anD August. They are fascinating insects and I have found that they make a noise almost like a scream and you will not likely squash one because they are incredibly tough. I know that most posters do not like to kill any of nature. I too like to observe nature and usually have no desire to kill. But if there is any danger to me or family on my property they will go to insect heaven.

    • bugman says:

      Cow Killers do not build nests. According to Texas A&M Agrilife Extension: “Life Cycle: Females seek the immature stages of ground-nesting bees, digging to the nesting chambers and eating a hole through the cocoon. She deposits and egg on the host larva, which soon hatches into a white legless grub. The immature velvet-ant eats the host larva, developing through several larval stages before forming a pupa.” According to BugGuide: “Invades the nest of bumble bees, especially Bombus fraternus. Female finds a host nest, digs down and deposits one egg near brood chamber. Larva enters the host brood chamber, kills host larvae, feeds on them, then pupates in the brood chamber.”

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