What Is A Cow Killer? Why Are Red Velvet Ants Called So?

Have you heard of a bug called a cow ant? Now that you have, you might be wondering what is a cow killer and what the reason behind its name.

Many people believe a cow killer is an ant, but it is actually a wasp. The reason why they are named so is because of their physical resemblance to worker ants.

They are also called cow killers because their females deliver excruciatingly painful stings and not because these wasps are powerful enough to kill a cow.

Continue reading if you are intrigued to learn more about cow killers and why they are called so.

What Is A Cow Killer
Velvet Ant

What Are Cow Killers?

Cow killers, commonly known as red velvet ants, are wasps with large and hairy bodies.

The female wasps are wingless with a brightly colored (primarily red and black) pile of body hair resembling a working ant.

They are about ¾ inches long and have reddish-orange hair predominantly on the head, thorax, and abdomen.

The male cow killer looks similar to the female but is larger and carries two pairs of dark brown wings.

The female velvet ant can be found scurrying on the ground during warm summer, whereas the male often hovers over flowers for nectar.

Some species of cow killers can also be nocturnal. These solitary wasps also produce a unique warning sound (like squeaking or chirping) if they feel threatened.

The wingless wasp can also give a painful sting if the presence of potential predators threatens them.

Velvet Ant

What Type of Insect Is a Velvet Ant?

All velvet ants come from the Mutillidae family. They are, thus, wasps and not ants, as others mistakenly refer to them.

The word ‘velvet’ is used because the female wasp is brightly colored and without wings, giving them a strikingly velvety appearance.

They are called ants because of their uncanny resemblance to ants.

Why Are Velvet Ants Called Cow Killers?

Many people think that the velvet ants are called cow killers because they have the strength to kill cows. It is, however, not true.

The reason why they are called cow killers is because of the female velvet ant’s powerful sting. It is just a euphemism for the sting being so powerful that it can even kill a cow.

How Bad Is Their Sting?

The female cow killer is a stinging insect capable of delivering extreme pain with a single bite.

The species of velvet ants ranks 3 out of 4(the most painful sting) on Schmidt’s Index of Sting Pain.

They use large stingers as the egg-laying ovipositor but can seriously hurt human skin. Their sting, however, is not toxic or poisonous to humans.

Velvet Ant

What Do Velvet Ants Eat?

The adult velvet ants eat nectar and water from the flowers like milkweed. Some may also feed on insects like flies or beetles.

The larvae feed on the host or its larvae and kill them. The female usually lays eggs in the host’s nest, like bumble bees, beetles, and other wasps.

Do Velvet Ants Fly?

The female velvet ants are wingless and, thus, cannot fly. You can often see them running on the ground or digging in the soil, usually searching for food or a potential host’s nest to lay eggs.

The male has a dark brown pair of wings and can fly around. You can spot a male cow killer hovering over flowers like milkweed because it drinks their nectar.

Where Do They Live?

Cow killer ants can be found around the world. In the USA, they can be spotted in Nebraska, where Dasymutilla occidentalis species of red velvet ants are the most common.

You can also locate them from the east of Florida to Connecticut and the west of Missouri and Texas.

Are They Dangerous To Pets or Humans?

The cow killer ants are not aggressive. However, female ants can give a painful sting to human beings or animals if they feel threatened or unsafe in a situation.

Their sting is one of the defenses to protect the eggs or their own life.

A cow killer’s sting is very powerful, as mentioned earlier, so it is advisable not to disturb or get close to these wasps.

Even though they deliver painful stings, red velvet ants are not dangerous to pets or human beings since their sting is not poisonous.

There have been no reports of any casualties due to their bite.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Cow Ant a Wasp?

Yes, a cow killer ant is a wasp, but because of their uncanny resemblance to worker ants, they are referred to as red velvet ants.
They belong to the Mutillidae family and are solitary insects, with males flying to mate with females and the latter laying eggs in a potential host.

Why is it called a cow killer?

It is called a cow killer because of the female red velvet ant’s ability to deliver a painful sting if threatened, provoked, or stepped on. The sting pain is excruciating, but it is not poisonous.
The pain is said to be so powerful that it can kill a cow, but this is just a saying and has no basis in truth.

How painful is the cow killer?

The sting of the cow killers is ranked 3 (4 being the most painful) on the index of Schmidt’s stinging pains.
Thus, the pain caused by a cow killer’s sting can be excruciatingly bad. They should be left alone even if you spot them.

What happens if you get bit by a cow killer?

If a cow killer bites you, expect pain for 30 minutes. However, this is not a regular insect bite pain; it is one of the most painful stings by a wasp, as per research.
The explosive aftereffects of pain may include swelling, boils, breathlessness, dizziness, anxiety, and more.

Wrap Up

Cow Killers prefer to live in open areas like pastures, forests, and lawn vegetation.

However, you can also spot them in urban and suburban areas as they are often seen digging soil or scurrying from one place to another.

So, ensure you do not disturb or step on them because their bite will make you scream.

Reader Emails

The colorful moniker of cow killers has made velvet ants pretty famous, and our readers have often asked us many questions about these bugs related to why they are called so and how cows are related to them.

Below are some of the emails from our devoted readers and their pictures of these beautiful insects.

Letter 1 – Velvet Ant


hairy insect
Hi there Bug folks!
I searched all over your website for a hairy insect like this one and didn’t see it anywhere. I found it at the top of a small mountain just yesterday (Sept 10th) in the Bay Area in California. It looks like a huge ant that needs a haircut! Please help me identify this bug. Love your website, this is my 2nd submission! Thanks,

Hi Lyndie,
What a wonderful photo of a Velvet Ant, Dasymutilla sackenii, a flightless female wasp with a painful sting.

Letter 2 – Velvet Ant


What is it?
I was playing with my toddler in the living room, and this little guy stung me on the hand. I haven’t been able to identify him, and wondered if you could help? We live in Middle Tennessee. I didn’t see it at first, but felt a sudden burning sensation in my hand. A short investigation revealed this critter under a sofa pillow. It’s behavior reminds me of a wasp though there are no wings. It actually moves much like a velvet ant we saw a few weeks ago, but isn’t as large nor as brilliantly colored. The abdomen is yellow and black striped with a red head and thorax. I apologize for the graininess of the pictures! Thanks!
H Davis

Hi H.,
This is most definitely a Velvet Ant which explains the Wasp-like behavior. We cannot determine the species, or even the genus, since the quality of the image is not real sharp. Our first inclination is that it might be in the genus Timulla, but it even resembles some members of the genus Dasymutilla.

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 11. is definitely Timulla. hope this helps a bit.

Update: Velvet Ant
(07/21/2008) Timulla grotei
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.

Hi Heather,
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 3 – Velvet Ant


Unknown Ant July 11, 2009 We found this ant in West Salem Oregon. It was found along a dirt road and has lasted for about 45 days and is still alive in a jar with holes in the lid. I have looked everywhere for some clue as to what it is and can not find anything about this ant the closest that I can find is the cowkiller ant or the velvet ant. Could you help me find out what this ant is? The ant when we first got it had yellow “hair” it has now started to burrow in the dirt I have in the jar and so it has turned brown from the dirt. Robert Henry Salem Oregon USA
Velvet Ant
Velvet Ant
Hi Robert, The Cowkiller is one distinctive species of Velvet Ant in the genus Dasymutilla.  Your specimen is a related species in the same genus, possibly Dasymutilla aureola.  We will try to get a second opinion from Eric Eaton on the species identification.  Female Velvet Ants are flightless wasps with a painful sting.  The winged males do not sting. Update from Eric Eaton Daniel: Your species ID of the Oregon velvet ant is correct.  The “blockhead” appearance is pretty diagnostic. Eric

Letter 4 – Velvet Ant


Velvet ant in the napkin drawer? April 10, 2010 Hello again, I was very, very surprised to find this little guy hanging out in our napkin drawer today. There isn’t any food (or theoretically other prey insects) in the drawer, it’s middle in height, and we haven’t brought in any plants to that room recently, so how she got there is a mystery. And a potentially disturbing one if I am right in my assumption that she’s a velvet ant/cow killer. Is that what it is, or is there something else which might have a better reason for being there? I was sorely tempted to squish it for fear of its sting, especially if it’s getting into such unsuspecting places, but I let it go instead (as pictured). Stephen C North Carolina
Velvet Ant

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