Subject: Nebraska bug
Location: Beatrice NE
July 30, 2012 1:51 pm
Hello bugman,
I was working in Beatrice NE and spotted a wonderful looking orange and black bug and was hoping you could tell me what it is.
Signature: Regards,

Cow Killer

We cannot help but to wonder if you were fortuitously wearing heavy gloves when you discovered this Velvet Ant that is commonly called a Cow Killer, or if you donned the gloves because the aposomatic or warning coloration caused you to suspect you might need them.  Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps that are reported to deliver a very painful sting if they are carelessly handled.  We have heard several different origins to the common name Cow Killer, and both seem plausible.  One explanation is that the sting is so painful, it could kill a cow, though that is something of an exaggeration, and the second explanation we have heard is that the sting could contribute to the death of a cow when the cow reacts to the sting.  The stung cow might run into a ditch or in front of a car or otherwise injure itself to the point that it must be euthanized.  You can read more about the Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis, by referring to BugGuide.  We decided several years ago that the reputed pain of the Cow Killer’s sting warrants it a spot on our Big 5 list of the most dangerous insects and arthropods.  Since we receive so many Cow Killer reports in August, we have decided to tag your submission as the Bug of the Month for August 2012. 

Thank you for the bug identification,
A gentleman I was working with was fortuitously wearing the gloves but felt more comfortable picking  the velvet ant up because he had them on.  He was very noticeable located in a  non vegetated area next to a large industrial complex out in the agricultural fields surrounding Beatrice NE.  Thank you for your assistance in identifying this bug and I look forward to using your website in the future.
Lars Smith, Project Scientist
Sand Creek Consultants, Inc.

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Location: Nebraska

5 Responses to Bug of the Month August 2012: Cow Killer, a Velvet Ant

  1. mrcj32 says:

    I live in Bellevue, NE and within the last 2 weeks or so my daughter and I have found 5 of these roaming around our front and back yard. They varied in sizes, from a half inch to an inch long. I’ve never seen them before this year. What’s the deal with that?

    • bugman says:

      We suspect the heat wave might be responsible, though some years some species of insects are just more prevalent than in other years.

  2. patti Donath says:

    Just found one of these actually beside my house I live in Central IL. I did not like the looks of it and it looked like it could hurt if it wanted to.. with a small child playing I did destroy the bug. Does this mean there could be more of them around my yard it was rather large at least and inch long.

  3. howard says:

    These bugs are amazing. I found one while visitin my uncle in Delaware. Its about an inch and has changed color and size in one day. Its tail extended and started to show more black and is now looking more like a wingless wasp. Its still mostly red though. Its incredibly fast and i want to know if theres a way to keep it indoors without killing it. Im in virginia now so is there a better place to release it if i cant keep it? What does it eat or need to survive?

    • bugman says:

      BugGuide does not provide any information on food, but if Velvet Ants are like other solitary wasps, they feed on nectar from blossoms. We would urge you to release your Velvet Ant in a “Meadows, old fields, edges of forests” because we don’t believe the change in color is a healthy sign. Moving wild creatures from one location to another without any forethought is not a concept we endorse.

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