Velvet ants are a mysterious lot. Their adults are nectarivores, while larvae are parasites. They mimic ants but are actually wasps. But do velvet ants fly? This is one more enigma that bug lovers can’t get an answer to because it is not a simple answer at all. Let’s see why.
It’s easy to get fascinated by bright, fuzzy insects. But the next time you see one – even something as small as an ant – have a look if it’s the infamous velvet ant.
Blessed with many colors and equipped with a long stinger, all species of velvet ant are notorious wasps that can easily be mistaken for ants milling around.
Though female velvet ants cannot fly, their sting lasts for a long and painful 30 minutes. Let’s take a dig into these little creatures.
What Are Velvet Ants
Despite their name, velvet ants or cow killer ants are actually wasps belonging to the family Mutillidae.
Ants, bees, and wasps belong to the same order of Hymenoptera and hence have many similarities, such as a segmented body and elbow-like antennae.
The female velvet ant does not have wings and, thus, at first glance, looks very similar to an ant.
They have black bodies, and parts of their head, abdomen, and thorax are covered with bright, fuzzy hair of varied colors. They can grow to about ¾ inches in length.
The male of this wasp species looks different due to its black wings and a metathorax that is not fused.
The bright color of adult velvet ants is a warning sign to any potential predator.
Bright colors in the animal kingdom are often used to warn predators of a host’s venom – this is known as aposematism.
Can They Fly?
Male velvet ants can fly, similar to wasps, using their black, transparent wings. Females, on the other hand, cannot fly, which makes them look very much like ants.
A simple way to distinguish a wingless female velvet ant from regular ants (apart from the color differences) is to look at its body.
Ants usually have a small hump, whereas wasps do not.
To cover up for their lack of wings, female velvet ants are pretty agile and can move about quite fast.
They can also deliver a painful sting as a defense mechanism, though they are not aggressive unless provoked.
Lastly, their larvae are ground-dwelling and cannot fly.
Where Do They Live?
Velvet ants are born on the pupa of other insects, which the larvae then feed on to grow. Hence, where they live depends on where the host larva they feed is found.
Their general preferences are warm, dry, and sunny areas that are open and nesting grounds for their hosts.
In the US, they can be found in the arid areas of both the east and west coasts.
Different species are of velvet and are common in different areas. For example, Dasymutilla occidentalis is native to Nebraska.
There are some areas where they are found more commonly than the others, such as the southwestern U.S.
They are found commonly throughout Australia, in both urban areas as well as swamps.
What Do They Eat?
Velvet ant larvae are parasitic in nature. The female, instead of nesting, lays her eggs on the pupa of another insect that is already in a chrysalis.
This way, when the eggs hatch in the summer months, the larva feeds on the pupa until they can pupate themselves.
As adults, they feed exclusively on nectar and water like other wasps. Velvet ants are solitary in nature and do not congregate.
Adults do not feed on insects but can sting humans, animals, and pets.
Are They Dangerous To Humans or Pets?
If you encounter a velvet ant, it’s best to leave them alone or vacuum/ brush them out. It’s also best to keep your pets away from them.
Female velvet ants have a hard exoskeleton making crushing them underfoot a difficult job. Curious pets are likely to sniff or put these ants in their mouth, resulting in trouble.
Moreover, if threatened, they can deliver a painful sting which is among the most painful stings delivered by wasps! Their strong string has earned them the nickname of cow killer.
Though not fatal or poisonous enough to cause any harm, the sting can cause swelling, headaches, and even nausea.
The sting is usually localized, and the pain starts to subside in half an hour.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do flying velvet ants sting?
No, flying velvet ants do not sting. Only males of the species can fly, and they do not possess a stinger.
So, if you see a velvet ant with black wings – it is likely a male and safe to swat away with your hand. You can also use a book or anything else in your hand for this purpose.
Are velvet ants aggressive?
By nature, velvet ants are not aggressive. Their first reaction to a threat is to scuttle away. However, if the threat persists, they release a vile odor to deter predators.
Failing that, they sting, which is quite painful. Poking or stomping them with a foot can result in being stung.
What happens if a velvet ant stings you?
Velvet ant stings are not fatal. The poison is not enough to be medically significant or require anti-venom.
But it will result in intense pain, redness, and localized swelling. Some may also experience headaches and nausea during their peak moments.
What kills velvet ants?
Due to their sting, female velvet ants hardly have any natural predators. To date, only the American toad has been recorded as eating them.
All other common predators, such as birds and lizards, seem to avoid them. But, they are susceptible to insecticides and can be killed if an infestation occurs.
If you see a flying velvet ant, you can rest assured that they are not dangerous. However, a walking velvet ant is something you should be cautious about.
At least, they are solitary and never in groups, so the chances of being accosted by hordes are nil. Thank you for reading!
There are many things that are incongruous about the velvet ant – but the fact that these insects look amazingly beautiful is one of the reasons why many of our readers are enchanted by it.
Read through some of the emails that we get on this insect, asking about its ability to fly, what it eats, and so on.
Letter 1 – Velvet Ant
I found your cool site on the web, but a cursory search of a few of the categories did not turn up anything. Can you help me to identify this guy?: Location: Henry Coe SP, Northern California
About 1 cm long red on both ends, with black in the middle furry moves pretty quickly Thanks!
This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp with a painful sting. We haven’t the time to research the exact species at the moment.
Letter 2 – Velvet Ant
I used your page to identify this cow killer ant / wasp.
Letter 3 – Velvet Ant
A few hours on line and I identified this "ant" as a wasp called "Velvet Ant", funny name for a wasp. Then, I saw that you had a picture of one under wasps.
Nice clear image of a Velvet Ant or Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis.
Letter 4 – Velvet Ant
I found your site while trying to identify this ant; hoping you can help. We have lots of black ants and tiny brown sugar ants. This one is about 8 – 9 mm long; never saw anything like it around here. It was on a desk in the office.
We were pretty sure this was one of the flightless wasps but we checked with Eric Eaton for confirmation. Here is his response: “Ding-ding-ding! Right AGAIN! It is another species of velvet ant, possibly Dasymutilla bioculata (spelling on the species?).” Velvet Ants are actually wingless female wasps and they can sting painfully.
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. image 36. Dasymutilla alesia. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 5 – Velvet Ant
This ant was found away from civilized area, in south central Missouri. I happened to see it on a trail for ATVs. The length of the ant is about the same as the diameter of a nickel. It was suggested to me that it may be a woodcutter, though nothing specific. I look forward to any information you can provide.
Your unusual ant goes by the common name Velvet Ant, but it is in fact a flightless female wasp. In the south, they are known as Cow-Killers because of the painful sting. The scientific name is Dasymutilla occidentalis.
Letter 6 – Velvet Ant
Yesterday, July 7, 2004, I was walking out of my garage with my two young sons (ages 20 mos. and 3 yrs.) and I turned my back for literally 20 seconds. My three year old comes running up to me and says his hand hurts. It looks dirty so I asked if he fell and he says, “a bug.” I asked if the bug bit him and he says no, but insists that his hand hurts. In order to distract him, I suggested that we get the mail. On walking to the mailbox, he says, “there it is!” I look to my right and see this bright red bug walking on the driveway. The bug was 3/4 inch long, I would guess, and the brightest red I have ever seen. Mostly red with black legs and, I would guess, three black stripes. I was startled and afraid as I do a lot of gardening and have never seen anything like it, so I stomped it with my shoe. I had to run an errand, but about 30 minutes later I checked my son’s hand as I was worried because the bug looked so wicked. His right thumb had swelled to about 1.5 times the size of his other thumb and was very hard/tight. It also had a white tiny pin prick in the middle of the fatty part of his thumb. I started to panic a bit, but within another half hour, the swelling started to go down and he said he was “all better.” When I got home, I started to dig for information on the internet and after two hours found your site. Part of my problem was that I thought I had seen a beetle of some sort so I typed in red bug (which came up with chiggers), red beetle (which came up with a red milkweed beetle, sort of close but not quite right) and red locust (which was definitely not what I saw). The body was segmented in three parts and I thought since it was crawling that it could not be a bee. After finding your site, I took tweezers and a white envelope and went to see if the bug parts were still in any shape to take a photo. I collected the bug and noticed it was very furry and in particular it had sort of longer legs than I had originally thought that were also furry. It was not as red as when I saw it walking, but it had been about four hours in the hot Georgia sun. I showed it to my husband when he got home and he said it looked like a wasp or hornet so I came back to your site and saw a picture of the bug I think I saw – a Velvet Ant, listed under wasps. I have become fascinated with your site since yesterday and read many clips just to learn more. Once I had a name for the bug I saw, I tried to find more information via several search engines, but with little success other than some pictures. My son seems fine now, but more of the story continues to come forth. He told me today that “the red bug was walking in the grass and (he) tried to pick it up.” Yikes! He also told me that he isn’t “supposed to touch bugs without asking Mommy because it might bite (him).” I guess maybe a good lesson for him since he is fascinated with all wildlife and touches without thinking usually. Anyway, none of the sites I could find really listed if a sting by a Velvet Ant is harmful, other than the pain. Do you know? Are they common in Georgia (we live in Forsyth County, north of Atlanta)? Do they change color (become a brighter red than normal) when they have been messed with or picked up? Are the males the same bright colors as this female was? Do you think I will see more? If I do see another one, I will try to snap a picture to send to you. After seeing your site, I felt guilty for killing it. It would have been a very good picture, I think. Thanks for your site!! Sorry for the “long version” of my story,
PS. I saw an email by Eric Eaton referring to www.bugguide.net as a good source for info. In this case, it was not very helpful for me (I am a bug idiot, more or less). Although, I did see that some of the pictures of the Velvet Ant that were posted were taken in Georgia, which answers that question I guess.
Velvet Ants are female flightless wasps. The males are smaller and have wings. There are many species of Velvet Ants, and some are bright red, others orange and still others yellow. The sting is painful, but not serious unless there is an alergic reaction. I love the name Cow Killer for the species Dasymutilla occidentalis, which is common in the South. Perhaps another websearch with the scientific name will give you additional information. I am very happy our site was helpful.
Letter 7 – Velvet Ant
Finally! After you helped me identify the species of velvet ant that stung me one summer despite my poor photo, it has been my mission in life to get a better quality photo of Timulla grotei if you should want it. After many failed attempts at phographing this fast-moving wasp, I finally got a lady who was relatively still for my camera. She didn’t smile and insisted on waving those antennae, but here she is… and no stings this time.
While we are impressed with your determination, and honored that you felt it was important enough to provide What’s That Bug? with a sharper image, we think you have set too low a goal for your life’s mission. Now that this milestone has been accomplished, we are confident you will accomplish truly great things. Thanks again for providing us with a clear image of Timulla grotei from Tennessee.
Letter 8 – Red Haired Velvet Ant
Subject: Red Haired Velvet Ant Location: Peachy Canyon, Paso Robles, California April 18, 2014 hello, what’s that bug? ! i know what this is called and saw it in Peachy Canyon, Paso Robles, CA. in “California Insects”, (Powell and Hogue) it is described as, “It is one of our commonest species, ranging widely in the Coastal Ranges”. however, i have only seen two before. do you think they are less common now? thank you, clare Thanks for the image Clare. Do you have a larger file? According to BugGuide, the Red Haired Velvet Ant is Dasymutilla aureola, and it is reported from California and Oregon.
Letter 9 – Red Haired Velvet Ant
Subject: what’s this bug? Location: southern california April 20, 2014 6:25 pm i’ve seen this bug 3 or 4 times while hiking dirt trails in the san gabriel mountains in southern california, in this month of april it’s a fast mover, approximately one-half inch long, and doesn’t seem to be hostile…seemed more intent on running away from anything put in it’s path. the actual red is very deep but i lightened the picture to help bring out detail….. Signature: john roush Dear John, We posted another image of a Red Haired Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla aureola, earlier today, but the critter was rather small in the digital file, and though we requested a higher resolution image, it was not available. This makes your submission even more desirable today. Velvet Ants are actually flightless female wasps. Do not try to handle a Velvet Ant as you will most likely be surprised by a very painful sting. We have heard that Velvet Ants are capable of stinging through garden gloves. Thank you for the information on the Red Haired Velvet Ant!! Feel free to use the photo i submitted….. john roush
Letter 10 – Cowkiller
Subject: Cow Killer and the Close Call Location: Washington-on-the-Brazos; Washington County, Texas September 7, 2014 9:54 pm Long story involving 1) hordes of hungry mosquitoes (who ignore or perhaps even enjoy the taste of Deep Woods Off), and 2) an epic storm front composed of towering purple cloud banks, lightning, and buckets of rain, caused our planned day at the beach in Galveston, Texas to evolve into a walking tour of historic Washington-on-the-Brazos in central Texas. So, I’m walking in the grass near the Brazos River instead of on the crushed-granite path at the park because I’m wearing flip-flops intended for sandy-beach-walking and don’t want to get rock shards in my shoes. I look down just in time to see my bare toes dangerously close to this very fast-moving red and black velvety creature. Thanks to you and your informative website, I know that this is probably a cow killer, a velvet “ant” that’s really a female wasp with an agonizing sting!! I did a quick “jump back, Jack”, in time to save myself from a terrible sting. Yeah. I opted to walk on the crushed rock pathways after that, keeping my eyes peeled for stinging insects. Interesting day. Thank you for the informative web site. You may have saved me from an agonizing sting, because I guarantee that I wouldn’t have known what this insect was without you. Most of the photos that I took (from the relative safety of the pathway) are blurry because the insect was so fast in moving over, under, and around the leaves and grass. Signature: Ellen Dear Ellen, Since you didn’t have a question, our response is short. Thanks for sending us the account of your encounter with this Cowkiller.
Letter 11 – Cow Killer
Subject: Cowkiller Location: south Louisiana October 10, 2014 8:15 pm What’s up Bug man! I caught a red velvet ant/wasp in my back yard while I was mowing and I put it in a container. What can I feed it? Signature: Jon Hite Dear Jon, Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps, and most adult wasps take nectar or other sweet, sugary liquids as food. According to BugGuide: “Adults (males?) take nectar.” Perhaps honey will suffice.
Letter 12 – Cowkiller
Subject: Velvet Ant Location: Tidbury Park in Kent County, DE August 14, 2015 6:13 pm I have only Seen four of five of these in my life and until I looked them up on your site, I did not know there was more than one kind. This one pictured here was walking around a sandy area with pine trees near a fresh water pond. It walked at a very brisk pace and it was hard to capture an in focus picture. My question is How many kinds of velvet ants are in the U.S. and what are their names? Please feel free to use my picture on your site if you like. The picture was taken on Aug 14th, 2015. Signature: John Naylor III Dear John, Your Velvet Ant is actually a flightless female wasp, and she is a member of the species Dasymutilla occidentalis, a species commonly called a Cow Killer as the sting is reported to be so painful it sometimes causes cows to run, fall and break bones, or possibly run in front of vehicles. Of the genus, BugGuide notes there are “140 spp. in our area,” but if the name Velvet Ant is expanded to the family Mutillidae level, BugGuide notes: “480 spp. in our area; about 8,000 spp. in 230 genera/subgenera worldwide.” We do not have the time tonight to research all their names for you, but you can explore our Velvet Ants category where 108 postings over the years have resulted in many diverse species and some beautiful images. You are far too humble. Your image is one of the best Velvet Ant images we have archived on our site. BugGuide is a far more official and scientific insect identification site, and you will see many more professionally identified and named species on their three genus pages.
Letter 13 – Cowkiller
Subject: The Red & Black Bug Location: Virginia August 9, 2016 12:07 pm What kind kind of bug is this? They are everywhere.. Signature: Lacee Barnett Dear Lacee, This Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla occidentalis, is commonly called a Cowkiller. It is actually a flightless female wasp that is reported to have a very painful sting.