This article will tell you everything you need to know about red velvet ants
The naming of various insect species has always intrigued me, even though they can be funnily misleading at times.
The red velvet ant, for instance, isn’t actually an ant in the first place. Neither does it kill cows, unlike what its other common name might suggest.
So, what exactly are red velvet ants? Let’s find out.
What Are Red Velvet Ants?
Red Velvet Ants are a species of parasitic wasps belonging to the Mutillidae family, like all other velvet ants.
The wingless females of this species closely resemble ants, hence the name. Growing up to 0.75 of an inch, they have hairy bodies with a velvety appearance.
Patches of dense orange-red hair cover the thorax and abdomen, while the rest of the body is black.
The males are even larger and also have a pair of black wings. The female velvet ants have stingers and can deliver a very painful sting.
Why Are They Called Cow Killers?
So far, no cow has been known to die from the sting of this wasp. They’re commonly known as cow killers simply to indicate the intense pain their stings can cause to humans and animals alike.
The cow killer ant is rated three on Schmidt’s sting pain index. In case you didn’t know, Schmidt’s pain index is a rating system that ranks insect stings on a scale of 0 to 4 based on how painful they are.
Velvet Ant Defense Mechanisms
Interestingly, velvet ants have almost no predators in the animal world despite being mere insects.
This is the result of their impressive suite of defense mechanisms that help them ward off predators far larger than themselves. These include:
- Pheromones: When threatened, velvet ants release a mixture of pheromones with a vile odor. These chemical signals scare away enemies by warning them that the velvet ants might be dangerous prey.
- Bright colors: Bright-colored animals and insects are typically poisonous and venomous in one way or the other. This deters potential predators from eating them.
- Tough exoskeleton: Made of chitin, the hard exoskeleton of these wasps is quite hard to crush. This hardened layer shields its body from common insect predators.
- Stridulation: Velvet ants can also rub their body parts together to create a chirping or squeaking noise and warn predators.
- Stinging: Lastly, red velvet ants are stinging insects and can sting an attacker multiple times in self-defense.
Where Do They Live?
The red velvet ants are native to the US. Geographically, they range from Missouri and Connecticut in the North to Florida and Texas in the South.
Pastures and the edges of forests are the ideal habitats for these wasps. You can also find lone females crawling on sandy regions too.
In urban environments, red velvet ants can be found digging in the soil or crawling amidst lawn vegetation.
These wasps dig around the soil to hunt for prey larvae species hiding underground.
If you have a garden on your property, there’s a chance that red velvet ants might show up during the warm summer months.
What Do They Eat?
Adult red velvet ants feed on nectar, which also explains their choice of habitat mentioned earlier.
The larvae, however, are parasites of other wasps and bees in their immature stages. The adult females lay their eggs on such prey larvae, often by cutting their way inside cocoons.
Later, the eggs hatch into white, legless grubs that begin feeding on the host’s body and eventually kill it.
After pupating into adults, they turn to a diet of nectar from flowers, and the cycle repeats.
What is the Lifecycle of A Red Velvet Ant?
Let us now find out a bit about the life cycle of these unique wasps. They usually conclude their life cycle in less than a year, going through the following stages:
- Eggs: As mentioned earlier, adult females lay eggs on the bodies of host larvae. Their eggs don’t take very long to hatch and quickly release white grubs devoid of legs onto the host’s body.
- Grubs: Like the larvae of all other parasitoid wasps, the grubs eat up the host and continue to grow. They go through several larval stages before they mature enough to pupate. This usually takes a couple of weeks.
- Pupae: The mature larvae pupate, morphing into the adult wasps that we are familiar with. They undergo significant metamorphosis during the pupal stage.
- Adults: The winged males and the wingless females emerge at the end of the pupal stage. They spend the rest of their lifetime drinking nectar and mating to lay eggs for the next generation. The females dig into the soil to find an underground host nest, where they can find suitable host larvae for the eggs.
Do They Bite or Sting Humans?
The possibility of getting stung is the main reason why people fear wasps, and the red velvet ant is especially scary in this regard.
While they’re a solitary wasp species and hence not very aggressive, red velvet ants would still sting you if you step on them or handle them poorly.
The sting of these wasps is rated quite high in Schmidt’s Pain Index, as we mentioned already.
What To Do If Stung?
Although the venom of the red velvet ant isn’t very strong, it may trigger powerful reactions in individuals who are allergic to insect stings.
Together with the excruciating pain, this can be a serious problem, and it’s advisable to seek medical attention soon.
Even if you aren’t allergic, you’ll still need first aid to help make the pain subside.
Use a disinfectant to thoroughly clean the area around the wound, after which you can compress the swollen area with ice packs.
Applying an antiseptic cream over the area will help you avoid further infection.
You may also use a mixture of baking soda and water if you don’t have any antiseptic cream at home.
However, if you still feel an itching sensation, visit a hospital immediately, as it might be an allergic reaction.
Are They Poisonous or Venomous?
Red Velvet Ants can inject venom while stinging. However, despite having a highly painful sting, it isn’t dangerously venomous to humans.
Unless you’re allergic to insect venom, the painfulness of the sting is the main concern for you.
Are They Harmful to Humans as Pests?
Red Velvet ants aren’t major pests as they do not cause any damage to garden plants or crops, and neither do they cause any property damage.
However, they can indirectly hinder your pest control strategy by parasitizing bees and wasps that prey on plant pests. Their painful sting makes them a danger to humans too.
Are They Beneficial?
Unlike various other parasitoid wasps, red velvet ants aren’t very beneficial to humans.
Parasitoid wasps are considered helpful mainly because they prey on plant-damaging pests.
Red velvet yellow jackets don’t hunt those pests – they prey on bees and wasps instead. However, they can still help control the population of more dangerous wasps like yellow jackets.
Can They Come Inside Homes?
Red velvet wasps aren’t indoor pests – they live amidst vegetation in the open. They might end up in your home by accident once in a while, but that’s quite rare.
Hence, you need not worry about these wasps infesting your home and posing a threat to your kids or pets.
What Are They Attracted To?
Red velvet wasps are attracted to areas with adequate vegetation and flowering plants where they can feed on nectar.
The females tend to crawl around in grassy areas, due to which the males are drawn to places with low plants and grasses. They fly at low heights in search of potential mates.
How To Get Rid of Them?
Red velvet ant management can be a tad challenging due to their impressive survivability. You can’t just swat them dead like most wasps, thanks to their tough exoskeleton.
Nor can you make use of natural predators since they don’t have any. Your best bet is to remove them using a broom or a shovel.
If you have red velvet ant nests in your garden, you may treat them with insecticidal dust. Aerosol sprays are a good choice against adult wasps.
However, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to carry out any major pesticidal treatment as these wasps don’t infest in large numbers and tend to keep away from humans.
Interesting Facts About Velvet Ants
Velvet ants are quite amazing, aren’t they? Here are some more facts about velvet ants that you might find interesting:
- Red velvet ants aren’t the wasps of this type. “Velvet ants” is the common name given to the Mutillidae family, which comprises over 3,000 different wasp species.
- The phenomenon of males and females being very different, known as sexual dimorphism, is very common among Velvet ants.
- Remember the tough exoskeleton we discussed? The shell of velvet ants is so tough that it’s difficult to pierce them, even with steel pins.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kills red velvet ants?
Any insecticide that works against wasps, in general, is effective against red velvet ants too.
Synthetic pyrethroid insecticides like cypermethrin are safe against humans, pets, and wildlife, which makes them a good choice.
Simply stomping on these wasps can kill them too, but remember to wear shoes to avoid getting stung.
How do you keep red velvet ants away?
To keep these wasps out of your home, simply seal entry points like cracks and holes in walls or the foundation.
If you have any tree branches or twigs hanging over your home, you might want to trim them off.
What eats red velvet ants?
Velvet ants have almost no predators and are rarely eaten by other species due to their host of defense mechanisms.
In a series of tests carried out to see how these wasps fare against potential predators, only the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) was able to eat this wasp successfully.
What are the main velvet ant species?
Also known as cow killer ants, the red velvet ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) is the most abundantly found species of velvet ant.
Other common velvet ant species include Ephutomorpha ferruginata, Pseudometheca simillima, Sphaeropthalma pensylvanica, etc.
So, now you’ve learned everything you need to know about red velvet ants.
I hope you found red velvet ants to be as interesting as I did since they are indeed very different from other common wasp species.
If you see any of them on your property, it’s best to either leave them be or remove the wasps without killing them.
Red velvet ants are very common all over North America, and these beautiful creatures always evoke mixed reactions – some fear them, while others are enchanted by their beetle-like colors and grace.
Read some of the emails from our readers over the years, and get a taste of how people feel about these bugs.
Letter 1 – Male Velvet Ant
I could not find out what this was until I reached your site. Thank you. I’m afraid the guy was dead when I found him, but no one else knew he was special. He’s going into my "When I Met You, You were Already Dead" collection!
While this is certainly a male Velvet Ant, it might be a species other than a Cowkiller. We are not certain. We love your “When I Met You, You were Already Dead” collection.
Letter 2 – Male Velvet Ant
what’s this hymenopteran?
Can you tell me what this insect is? Missing a hindwing. I found it in Osoyoos, BC, Canada. Thanks,
Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps in the family Mutillidae. The males have wings. This is a male Velvet Ant. We cannot tell you the exact species, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to a mounted male Dasymutilla quadrigutta pictured on BugGuide.
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 2. probably dasymutilla vesta, need more specific location. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 3 – Male Velvet Ant
Male velvet ant?
I love spotting the occasional red velvet ant on my weekly Soberanes trail hike (about 10 mi. south of Carmel, CA), and recently saw one for the first time with wings (but couldn’t get my camera out before it disappeared). I’ve since learned the winged ones are males. The attached photo was taken at the Elkhorn Slough Nature Preserve (near Moss Landing, CA) on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2007. This time I had time to get some shots. He was moving fast, and this was the only halfway decent one of the 8 or so I took.
This is indeed a male Velvet Ant, but we are not certain what species. Perhaps it is Dasymutilla coccineohirta.
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 5. Dasymutilla aureola. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 4 – Cowkiller: Male of the Species
Red Velvet Ant
Found these males leaving a hole in my garden floor.
We rarely get images of the male Cowkiller.
I did not give much information with the pictures. I live in Alexandria, Al. The pictures were taken July 25, 2007 around 1600 hrs. (4:00 PM). Yesterday, July 26, 2 females were in the grass near my garden. They move so fast it was hard to get a good picture. I will try to look at the ones I got this afternoon. I’ll gladly send them to you if you are interested.
Letter 5 – Male Velvet Ant
Red Velvet Wasp with Wings?
I saw this on my porch and it scared me to death. The coloring matches the Red Velvet Wasp but isn’t it supposed to be wingless?
Male Velvet Ants are winged and females are flightless. This is a male Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis.
Letter 6 – Male Velvet Ant
Wasp in Oklahoma Location: Owasso, Oklahoma July 9, 2011 7:28 pm Hi bugman i have found this wasp type insect in my backyard. It is mainly black with some red parts. Signature: David B. Hi David, This is a male wasp in the genus Dasymutilla, a group commonly called Velvet Ants because the females are flightless and they resemble large furry ants. Only the female Velvet Ant stings and the sting is reported to be extremely painful. Males lack stingers.
Letter 7 – Male Velvet Ant
Subject: wasp? Location: Scottsdale, AZ July 6, 2017 2:06 pm I saw a few of these wasps that look like fuzzy pepsis wasps to me. Spotted in Scottsdale, AZ, daytime, temperature in the 90s. Signature: stacey v. Dear Stacey, This is a winged, male Velvet Ant in the genus Dasymutilla. Female Velvet Ants are flightless wasps and they have very painful stings while males are harmless. We found a matching image on BugGuide, but it is only identified to the genus level.
oh my gosh, how cool!! I have never seen the males. thank you so much!! -stacey
Letter 8 – Male Velvet Ant
Subject: iD this bug Geographic location of the bug: South Carolina Date: 07/20/2021 Time: 05:14 PM EDT Your letter to the bugman: This flying insect along with many more of the same were swarming low to the ground around some blooming flowers. However they seemed more interested in the pine straw than the nectar. Will he sting? Children pass through here often. How you want your letter signed: Kim Dear Kim, There is a group of flightless female Wasps in the family Mutillidae that are commonly called Velvet Ants because they resemble Ants, and they are known to deliver a very painful sting. Only the females are flightless and though the family is referred to as Velvet Ants, it is only the females that truly deserve that name, but for the sake of convenience, we will call this a male Velvet Ant. We believe based on this BugGuide image that the species is Dasymutilla occidentalis. The stinger of a Bee or Wasp is a modified ovipositor, an organ used in the laying of eggs. Male wasps do not lay eggs, do not need an ovipositor, and consequently, they cannot sting. Watch for the flightless female Velvet Ants called Cowkillers. They do sting and the sting is reported to be quite painful.
Letter 9 – Two Different Velvet Ants
Large red ant This time, with photo! Hi I found this ant crawling through my hallway and have tried unsuccessfully to identify it. Can you help? It is about 1/2 inch long. I thought it might be some type of carpenter ant; they are pretty common around here. This little guy has a very distinctive white stripe around his abdomen, though, and I couldn’t find anything similar in my bug books or online. Thank you! Mandy Cedar Hill, TX p.s.: Sorry, I forgot to attach the photo the first time Hi Mandy, Though it looks like an ant, and is called a Velvet Ant, your insect is a flightless female wasp. Be careful, as she can deliver a very painful sting. (12/08/2007) Large red ant I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. I know what velvet ants look like, I have had them in my yard. (see attached photo) I know they are actually wingless wasps. They are much bigger, and much hairier than this bug. This guy is large for an ant, but only 1/2 inch. I know it looks large in the picture, but I had a hard time putting something next it for size contrast since it wouldn’t be still. Mandy Hi again Mandy, We gave you a very general answer. Velvet Ants are a family of wasps, the females of which are generally brightly colored and flightless. The family is Mutillidae. Your original image might be in the genus Timulla, or the genus Pseudomethoca, or perhaps some other genus. We are not sure of the species. Your second photo is also a Velvet Ant, and this one is in the genus Dasymutilla. It appears to be a Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis, but the photo is too blurry to be certain. So both of your images are of Velvet Ants, but they are different species. 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. 3. sphaeropthalma pensylvanica. image 4. could be either dasymutilla californica, coccineohirta, or vestita depending on local. hope this helps a bit. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 10 – Cow Killer
Red Velvet Ant
I was looking online for what this awesome looking insect was called. I love ants and it looks like one but behaved like a wasp. It would move quickly with the abdomen upright. I saw everyones pictures and sure now that this is what it is. It was difficult to photograph because of its irratic movements.
Your Velvet Ant is a Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis. Obviously, the quality of your photographs must rise with the level of difficulty, since the detail on your photograph is awesome.
Letter 11 – Cow Killer
HI. Last October I found this fuzzy red/black bug following me. It was the weirdest thing that I’ve ever seen. I would move then make a noise and the bug would move in my direction. I’ve never seen a bug like this before. Any ideas what it is?
Lucky for you that you didn’t try to pick up that Cow Killer. Cow Killer is a local name for this species of Velvet Ant, which is in fact a flightless female wasp. Dasymutilla occidentalis gets its colorful common name because many people believe the painful sting is strong enough to kill a cow. They run quickly and are very aggressive. The males fly. They range from New York to Florida and west to Texas, but they are most common in the South.
Letter 12 – Cow Killer
Velvet Ant Hi. I am quite squeamish about some bugs but fascinated with others and am enjoying your page! We found this little beauty in the garage after my 3 year old daughter said “Look Mommy! A Ladybug Ant!” We caught her snapped a few pictures then released her out by the trees. Thanks! NE Arkansas Your Velvet Ant is actually a flightless female wasp. Because of her painful sting, she also goes by the common name of Cow Killer.
Letter 13 – Cow Killer
Weird beetle or ant I have never seen before Thu, Dec 4, 2008 at 1:31 PM We were vacationing in the mountains of North Carolina and found this beetle looking thing. It was very fast and we found it on 2 different occasions during the same trip. Both were around 11:00 am or so. If you can’t help identify that is ok, I was just really curious what it might have been is all. Thanks!! Jamie of Michigan Franklin, North Carolina Hi Jamie, Your discovery is known as a Cow Killer because of its painful sting. Cow Killers, Dasymutilla occidentalis, are a species of Velvet Ant and Velvet Ants are actually flightless female wasps.
Letter 14 – Cow Killer
Velvet Ant July 20, 2009 Dear Bugman, Thank you very much for your wonderful and informative web site! After finding a beautiful bug in the backyard today we came to “What’s That Bug?” to identify ‘her.’ I am attaching the picture of our Velvet Ant for your enjoyment. We were sure happy to read your reports BEFORE handling our wasp! Our end of the summer project has become identifying as many bugs as possible, thanks to you guys! Sam, 6 and Nanny Shauna Columbus, Georgia Hi Sam and Nanny, Your Velvet Ant is also known as a Cow Killer and its photo is stunning.
Letter 15 – Bug of the Month August 2012: Cow Killer, a Velvet Ant
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, 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. Regards, Lars Smith, Project Scientist Sand Creek Consultants, Inc.
Letter 16 – Sacken's Velvet Ant
I am not sure if I sent the first one correctly. Here are the photo’s of a very strange looking bug. I am not sure if it is an ant,beetle or some kind of wingless bee? Is a bug in it’s developing stage? Will it morph later on? I live in the high desert. Hesperia, CA. I found it while rock hunting around my area. Please help me identify this bug. Thank you for any information.
This is a Thistledown Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp reputed to have a very painful sting. Males of the species are smaller and winged. Your photo is quite surreal.
Hi, Daniel: Great job, as usual, with all the IDs and postings. Only one correction. Pretty sure the “thistledown velvet ant” posted is actually Sacken’s velvet ant, Dasymutilla sackeni. Thistledown velvet ants (D. gloriosa) have much longer hairs, and are bright white, not “dirty white” as this specimen is. Sacken’s velvet ant is one of the more common species in California. Great detective work by everyone on the male crevice spider! The angle of the image managed to camouflage those incredible pedipalps, which are a hallmark for ID of the males. The opening post for the “bug of the month” is also great, as it demonstrates what a great service you are providing in alleviating irrational fears of insects and spiders. I am overjoyed to hear of someone befriending a cicada killer instead of finding a big shoe….:-) Keep up the wonderful crusade, my friend. Sincerely,
Letter 17 – Sacken's Velvet Ant
Can you please tell me what this bug is that I found in the back yard. I have tried searching for it on the internet but have been unable to figure it out. Thank you!
Velvet Ants are really a flightless female wasp that packs a wallop of a sting.
Letter 18 – Sacken's Velvet Ant
beetle with white hair?
I live in Corona, CA (borders Riverside) and found this beetle looking creature – actually my dog was following it around curiously – in my back yard. When it is scampering to get away, it makes a cute little squeaky noise. The hair on it’s back seems about 5 – 10 mm long, pretty fuzzy! Would love to know what it is, and what it eats! I’m going to let it go in a couple of days. Thanks,
This Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp that packs a wallop of a sting.
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 14. Dasymutilla sackeni. hope this helps a bit.