Red Velvet Ants or Cow Killers – Facts and Images

This article will tell you everything you need to know about red velvet ants

Call for pest control services now.

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.

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So, what exactly are red velvet ants? Let’s find out.

Velvet Ants
Velvet Ant

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.

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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. Try using BUG BITE THING Suction Tool as quickly as possible. We love this simple product because it works without chemicals by taking most of the venom out of the puncture.

Velvet Ant

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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.

Velvet Ant

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.

Velvet Ant

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 so make sure to get a BUG BITE THING Suction Tool if you live in a region inhabited by velvet ants.

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. 

Red Haired Velvet Ant

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.

Red Haired Velvet Ant

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.

Conclusion

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.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts

26 thoughts on “Red Velvet Ants or Cow Killers – Facts and Images”

  1. 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?

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

      Reply
  2. Just to let everyone know that this wasp has a nasty sting, I happen to pick one up with leather gloves on and its sting penetrated through the gloves made me jump two feet off the ground, scream and run like a fool, it felt like my finger was on fire, and it hurt for about 20-30 minutes–
    Dont try this at home!!!

    Reply
  3. Just to let everyone know that this wasp has a nasty sting, I happen to pick one up with leather gloves on and its sting penetrated through the gloves made me jump two feet off the ground, scream and run like a fool, it felt like my finger was on fire, and it hurt for about 20-30 minutes–
    Dont try this at home!!!

    Reply
  4. I found this same insect in my house, twice this week 🙁 no luck here to help identify it either. No, its not a velvet wasp. I agree with you here.

    Reply
  5. I had one of them ants in my shoe, the first pic, it bites, it made my two swell so bad I cant wear my shoes. if this was of the wasp family I would be in er after wards cause I am highly allergic to bees, and wasps.

    Reply
  6. This is the first I’ve seen this site and I like it! I moved to Northern Florida last August from northwest Pennsylvania. I know all the bugs and animals and trees and flowers, etc. from that area. BUT, I have no idea of all that is here in Carrabelle, Florida, in the water or on land. It just so happens that one of my neighbors pointed out a cow killer to me 3 weeks ago. He said he hadn’t seen one in years but that I should stay away from them. He also said that they are almost impossible to kill.
    I was just walking out in my back yard, with my little dog, when I came across one by my bird bath. Of course, I was freaked out and tried to kill it before it would hurt my dog. I could not kill it by stepping on it so I finally found a discarded oyster shell and cut the horrible creature in half. It still is living!!!! How can I get rid of it?!?!?!? I didn’t used to be a ninny up North but I am still trying to get used to the strange wildlife here. Don’t get me wrong …. I love my home and the people and the area, I just don’t want to get hurt. I am a 64 yr. old woman and loving to learn about new things.

    Reply
  7. I just saw one of these today, in my front yard in Dover, Delaware. It was indeed beautiful. I wanted to capture it, to photograph it, never having seen anything like it before. I thought about picking it up, but it looked wasp-like, and such a brightly colored insect reminded me of poisonous frogs. Glad I chose to run for a glass jar to capture it, but sorry to say it disappeared before my return.
    What a treat, just to see something so beautiful. Beauty is everywhere, isn’t it?

    Reply
  8. 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.

    Reply
  9. Perhaps this story is unfit for your readers, but I thought you might enjoy it. One of my first jobs out of college was as a botanist in SE Oregon. The first day in the field my boss went with me to “show me the ropes”. This part of the state is very sparsely populated and we were in an area at least 50 miles from the nearest civilization. I was examining a rare plant when my boss suddenly let out a scream I can still hear, yanked down his pants and began leaping about in a most fantastic manner. Turns out a velvet ant had crawled up his pant leg and stung him on a very sensitive part of his anatomy (unfortunately, I actually observed the offending creature et al.) I had to drive him back to the office with the contents of our ice chest held firmly in his lap.
    The funniest part was how from that point onward he avoided contact with me at all cost and I was free to do my job without any supervision.

    Reply
  10. Got stung 2 days ago by the first wasp, at home while sitting at my computer. Stung like a devils pitchfork!! It left its stinger under my skin and had to fish it out. Still feeling the burn!

    Reply
  11. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  12. I just killed one like this today. I caught the lil’ bugger walking across my leg while playing some video games and it startled the hell out of me! I’ve never seen any ant like that before in my life to be honest. I stomped on that thing HARD about 3 or 4 times (on a tiled floor mind you) and it was still alive (even though it couldn’t move). It sure was tough as nails to withstand me stepping on it. I’m counting my lucky stars that I didn’t get bitten like some of the unfortunate previous posters have. Ouch! So I had to look up to see what in the world did I just encountered today here in (central) Florida.

    Reply
  13. I saw this exact same insect on my house, except it had wings. It did Stu g me on the back of my neck, but it was NOTHING like a velvet ant sting. O don’t believe the original photo is a velvet ant, because velvet ants don’t have wings.

    Reply
  14. I’ve also found one of these on my back deck today. Clear white stripe, but not as hairy. Seems to me like a variant of the red velvet ant, but I’m no pro. I’m in Alvin, TX, South of Houston.

    Reply
  15. I found two (on different occasions) by a salt water swimming pool. I tried to smash it with my flip flop (ended up in two pieces) and both the head and tail were hard as rocks–never could smash them. I live outside Richmond, VA. Would love to know if this thing is a wasp and beneficial. Don’t really recall if I saw wings or not.

    Reply
  16. I just caught one and im taking a picture of it to post on here i goin to let it sting me on the tongue i will let you know what happens hope it isnt to painful.

    Reply
  17. So what kind of ant is this cause I have little ones and they are crawling still and I found one in the house killed it took forever to kill and then I found another one outside just now and I’m flipping out. How do I find the nest and kill it I’m in central Florida.

    Reply
  18. I have alot of different insects in my yard. Black,red, fire ants, one looks like a nest of red velvet ants. One was hugh took a while to kill it, then I noticed a lot of smaller ones all around. I also have alot of what looks like brown locus (not sure how to spell it)spiders or wolf spider, I’m not sure what type, crickets, lady bugs, moles, voles, mice, a lot of ground snakes, tree frogs, other frogs, lizards, baby copperhead snakes, rabbits etc. Alot of things in my yard. I live in town, at the edge of town. Parts of my yard is soft and constantly finding small round finger size to silver dollar size holes all in my yard, hundreds of small holes, find raised dirt from moles all in my yard, cracks all in yard, and new big holes form all soft spots and moles. It’s crazy. I’ve never had so many bugs and reptiles in one place. How can I get rid of them. My yard is getting worse from all the holes and cracks etc. Also lots of sewer flies and gnats, mosquitoes.

    Reply

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