Velvet ants are beautiful from a distance, but beware – this is no ant; it is a type of wasp and, like most wasps, has a stinger. So, are velvet ants dangerous? We answer this below.
Despite their name, velvet ants belong to the wasp family of Mutillidae and are wingless wasps. Over 8000 species of velvet ant can be found, all of them covered with fuzzy, velvety hair earning them the name.
Similar to wasps, they can sting. Cats and dogs that often poke insects may end up with a swollen muzzle if they touch or eat them.
What Are Velvet Ants?
Velvet ants are bright orange and black in color, covered with a layer of bright fuzz.
Their bright color and defense mechanisms make them an unappealing food item for most potential predators.
The exoskeleton of velvet ants is 11 times stronger than that of a honeybee. Female velvet ants can sting using their modified ovipositor – the resulting pain can last for up to 30 mins.
Besides this, they release repulsive odors and loud squeaking noises to dissuade predators.
Despite not having wings, they have strong leg muscles allowing them to run at speeds of up to 14 centimeters per second!
They lead a parasitic lifestyle. Instead of making their own nests, the adult velvet ant will lay eggs on the pupae of another insect. The hatched larva then feeds on the pupa before emerging.
Is a Cow Ant Dangerous?
Velvet ants are also known as cow killers or cow killer ants because they deliver a sting so painful it is said to be enough to slay a cow.
But despite the colorful metaphor, they cannot kill cows, pets, or humans. However, as far as predators go, velvet ants are not a good insect to eat.
They have a very hard external layer, making killing them via crushing a challenging task. Preservationists often have to pierce their skin with a safety pin to inject medicines.
Does It Bite or Sting?
When threatened, the female of the species can sting. Their sting does contain venom. However, it is too low to be of any medical significance.
Compare this to the sting of honeybees, which is actually 25 times more toxic! Moreover, they are solitary wasps, unlike social wasps such as yellow hornets, so you are unlikely to get attacked by a herd.
How Painful is Its Sting?
This painfulness of the velvet ant sting depends on the velvet ant species, and currently, Dasymutilla klugii has the worst one.
This is rated a three on the Schmidt sting pain scale, where 4 is the highest recorded pain (a title awarded to the bullet ant).
Despite this, their sting is not fatal. A 3 on this scale would have a pain level comparable to having burning hot oil on your hand.
Are velvet ants aggressive?
Velvet ants don’t attack by nature. They are non-aggressive and more prone to escape when threatened.
They also squeak loudly to warn off predators by rubbing their abdominal segments against one another and releasing a chemical odor.
If the predator still persists, they resort to stinging.
Can a Cow Ant Kill You?
Unlike some highly toxic wasps that attack in hordes like yellow jackets, velvet ants cannot kill humans or pets.
On stinging, the area affected is prone to redness and swelling. You can apply a cold compress to make it go down.
To date, there has been no recorded anaphylaxis or allergic reactions to their sting. However, it is still technically possible if someone is allergic to insect bites.
Are Red Velvet Ants Poisonous?
The venom of the red velvet ant contains minute levels of poison, which is medically negligible.
One can still have certain reactions like nausea, diarrhea, or even a headache after being bitten. But it is not fatal and does not require great medical attention.
Any redness is also localized to within 2 inches of the area stung. Hence there is nothing much to worry about.
Are Velvet Ants Dangerous to Dogs?
Dogs are, by nature, curious and prone to chewing things. If they happen to threaten or pick up a red velvet ant, they could get stung.
In such cases, they may need medical attention. The sting will eventually subside, but the dog might suffer pain for a little while.
Can a Velvet Ant Kill a Dog?
The sting of adult velvet ants cannot kill a dog or a cat. However, it will be quite painful, and the animal will need to be treated by a veterinarian.
The vet will ensure that they do not lick or bite the wounded area until it gets better by putting on an anti-licking collar.
What Do Velvet Ants Eat?
A velvet ant larva will consume the pupa they were born on and any other cocoon or larva they can find.
As adults, velvet ants survive exclusively on nectar and water – a similar diet to that of most other wasps.
Where Are Velvet Ants Found?
Within the US, they run all the way from Connecticut in the west to Missouri in the east, and then Florida to Texas, going from north to south.
There are also species that are native to the Eastern United States, such as the Dasymutilla occidentalis.
Do Velvet Ants Fly?
Wingless females cannot fly(but have stingers). Males, on the other hand, have wings and can fly.
However, velvet ants typically are not great flyers and do not fly long distances. They prefer to crawl on the ground, which is why they are often confused for ants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Red Velvet Ants Harmful to Dogs?
Yes, they can sting dogs that get too close to them or eat them – which causes excruciating pain. Thankfully, they are not poisonous enough to kill dogs.
However, the dog might require a bit of medical care for some time. A visit to the vet would be a good idea in such cases.
What happens when you get stung by a velvet ant?
General symptoms include a large localized swelling and redness, followed by pain.
The pain will usually subside in half an hour and then can be treated with a cold compress and anti-inflammatory medicines.
Some people might experience nausea and headaches during the peak of the sting.
Can you squish a velvet ant?
Their resilient and hard exoskeleton makes it very difficult to squish them. This is why when you find a velvet ant, it’s best to use a third object to transport them out.
Common ant or bee control methods, such as squishing, do not work effectively because it is very hard to squish these bugs because of their exoskeleton.
Are velvet ants rare?
In the US, velvet ants are common across local hotspots that we mentioned earlier, and there are over 8000 species.
However, in other countries like the UK, they are quite rare, and only 3 three species have been found to date.
In general, they are not very noticeable as they do not congregate or pose any special threat to plants as pests.
Velvet ants are dependent on the host species on whose pupa they lay eggs (such as ground-nesting bees). Generally, they prefer sunny, dry, and open areas.
These bugs are not lethal, and their poison is not very effective against either humans or pets.
However, if you live in a velvet ant hotspot, it’s best to leave them alone and transport them away so that your pets remain safe. Their sting can leave quite a bit of pain.
Thank you for reading!
Velvet ants are quite a mysterious find for most of our readers. Their invitingly beautiful colors and their propensity to walk on the ground, just like ants, make them irresistible.
However, our readers are thankfully a better safe than sorry lot. Over the years, they have asked us these questions many times, and we would love for you to read all the emails they have sent.
Letter 1 – Cow Killer
weird red bug
What is this thing in the attached picture? It’s hard to get perspective from the picture, but this insect is pretty big, much bigger than any ant I’ve seen. It’s about as big as a hornet. And it’s velvety, and the color is very bright. Any idea what it is? Thanks
New Bern, NC
We are getting many letters regarding Cow Killers, a type of Velvet Ant. Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps. Is there a population explosion? Seems they might be more common this year than in years past.
Update: (04/02/2008) ID for insects
Hey, my name is Will, this is a list of the ID’s for the velvet ant page. 19. Dasymutilla sackeni, white form. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 2 – Cow Killer
Red and black Ant? Or ????
We just moved from Florida to Georgia. Now in Florida we do have a lot of extreme bugs, but this is one that we have NEVER seen. It looks like a red and black ant, but it’s fuzzy and huge!!!!!!! It doesn’t look like it has any wings at all, we thought maybe they fell off or the bug was injured. We live in South Georgia about an hour out of Atlanta. Any help identifying this bug and letting us know if it is harmful to us or plant or any info would be helpful!!! Thanks
Flustered in Georgia
This flightless female wasp is commonly known as a Velvet Ant or Cow Killer. She is not harmful, but has a very painful sting. Don’t bother her and she won’t bother you.
Letter 3 – Cow Killer
Scary Hissing Ant!
Last year, I ran across a very strange bug. It looked like a giant fuzzy ant with orange and black stripes and it made a strange hissing noise when I bothered it. Naturally, I backed off! You never know which bugs could bite!
Bloom of the Moon
It is well that you backed off. This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp that is commonly called a Cow Killer, and she stings like the dickens. Eric Eaton add: “Velvet ants can ‘squeak’ by rapidly rubbing their abdominal segments against one another, which might account for the “hissing” sound the submitter mentioned. Between the warning colors and the noise, you’d be foolish to pick one up”
Letter 4 – Cow Killer: Stung and Lived to write about it!!!
Red Velvet Ant
I know firsthand why they call this THE COW KILLER. Last September, I stepped across a potted plant on my porch and my foot was attacked by a "ball of biters". It immediately felt like I had stepped into a bed of coals. This intense pain lasted for about five minutes and then was replaced by a horrible achy pain that lasted for two weeks along with intense itching and swelling. For several months, my foot would swell up, ache and itch repeatedly for no reason. Even now, six months later, I still have reoccurring symptoms. Sometimes my foot feels like I have arthritis in it. Beautiful little critter, but wicked!!
Letter 5 – Cow Killer
Bugman! Help! She/he’s a beauty! What is it?!
Bugman (or woman):
My girlfriend and I came across this (pic attached) amazing orange creature while hiking around the Little Grand Canyon in the Shawnee National Forest, which is located in Jackson County, Illinois. It sort of ambled about in a friendly way on the ground while we took pix and followed. I didn’t touch him; I just held my finger there in the photo for scale. This really was a gorgeous bug — his orange and black hairs were amazing! Later that day, while out on a rock outcropping overlooking the canyon, we also saw GIGANTIC wasp with a pretty cool, long, drape-y ovipositor. Is that what it’s called? She gave us a bit of a start, coming out of nowhere and heading straight for us! Anyway, can you help us identify this little orange fuzzy friend? Thanks a lot!
Dillon and Claudia
Hi Dillon and Claudia,
She is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp reputed to have a painful sting, hence the common name of Cow Killer as the sting is supposedly painful enough to kill a cow. The other wasp you saw may have been a Giant Ichneumon.
Letter 6 – Cow Killer
Tiger like ant?
I found this guy in my yard. He is about an inch or a little more long. I have searched and searched but can’t find out what it is. Can you help? Thank you.
Your ant is actually a flightless female wasp known as a Velvet Ant or Cow Killer. The sting is reported to be very painful.
Letter 7 – Cow Killer flees wrath of Hurricane Rita!!!
While having our family evacuate from the Houston area, waiting on Hurricane Rita to hit we went outside to check the wind speed and weather conditions. My daughter saw this mutant wingless wasp run across the sidewalk. This of course brought the curiosity of my brother along with all the little chumleys (Kiddos) to see the sight. I have to admit it took my brother the cyber junky to find your website in less than 15 min. Thanks for all the information. We let loose the striking lady in red in the neighbor’s lawn across the street.
Katy , Texas
Aka Hurricane Rita’s refuge Bed and Breakfast
Here in Los Angeles, our newspapers and television coverage is all about how crazy it is trying to get out of Houston. 14 hour drives to get 70 miles. We are amazed that you took the time to photograph and identify the Cow Killer, and then even had time to write to us. Good luck weathering the storm.
Letter 8 – Cow Killer
What the Heck?!
My daughter saw this bug running across our driveway this afternoon and I saw one yesterday in a totally different part of our yard (we have 4 acres). We saw some last year too. It looks like a huge, furry, red ant?! It was about 1 1⁄2 -2 inches long and I didn’t want to kill it to take a picture and had a hard time keeping the camera on him…running around too fast. It really is a good looking and vibrant bug. We live in Winston-Salem , North Carolina .
We recently created a Velvet Ant page especially for these flightless female wasps that are also known as Cow Killers because of their painful sting.
Letter 9 – Cow Killer
Beautiful Six Legged Bug….What is it????
Can anyone tell me just what kind of bug this is? I live just north of Dallas, Texas and found several of these bugs in my yard yesterday July19, 2005. It has six legs and is covered in a beautiful orange to crimson red and black velvet, It almost looks like a large ant. I have never seen this bug before……please respond.
Our site has a brand new search engine and we would just love it if people would use it. Typing in your key words, like velvet, should have led you directly to where you wanted to go, the Velvet Ant page. Your Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla occidentalis, is sometimes called a Cow Killer, no doubt because the sting of this flightless female wasp is quite painful.