What Do Velvet Ants Eat? Incredible Parasites Take Over Other Insect Nests And Eat The Residents!

Velvet ants look cute and cuddly, but in their immature stages, these bugs are mean parasitoids. So what do velvet ants eat as adults? And what about when they are larvae? Let’s find out

If an insect is named a cow killer, there is a high chance that it kills animals like cows and is a carnivore or omnivore, right? Well, not completely.

The cow killer ants are also known as velvet ants, and these insects do not eat cows, nor are they capable of killing one.

But if not cow meat, then what do these insects eat? Let us find out in this article.

What Do Velvet Ants Eat
Velvet Ant

What Are Velvet Ants?

Velvet ants are actually a species of wasps. They look like ants who have grown big hair on their bodies, which is why they get the name velvet ants.

They have brightly colored bodies covered with a thick coat of bristles.

Although they look similar to ants, if you look closely, you will notice that ants have elbow-shaped antennae, and these wasps have straight antennae.

One interesting thing about these bugs is that while the males have wings and can fly, the females have no wings, and they usually crawl around to get to places.

Most people who have spotted females crawling around thought they were some kind of ant, and that’s how the name came about.

What Do They Eat?

There are many doubts regarding the diet of the velvet ants. Some claim that these wasp species are herbivorous, while others claim them to be omnivorous.

This confusion occurs mainly because the adults and the larvae have different palates. As larvae, these bugs are parasites. Let us take a closer look at each of these.

As Adult Insects

Adult velvet ants are herbivorous in nature, and like many other wasps and bees, they highly rely on nectar and water to survive. Milkweed is one flower that they love a lot.

Velvet Ant

As Velvet Ant Larvae

The female velvet ant lays eggs in the nests of other insects. As the larvae emerge, they kill and eat the already present larvae in the nest and then pupate to overwinter, emerging as healthy adults later on.

What Habitats Do They Live in?

Velvet ants do not build their own nests; the wingless female lays eggs in other insects’ nests, like ground-nesting bees.

Due to this, you will often find them near areas where these hosts build their nests. Velvet ants prefer to live in warm and dry areas, like cemeteries, lawns, non-shaded regions of forests, and more.

These bugs are found across the US, Australia, and the UK. There are several species of velvet ant. The most abundant one in North America is the Dasymutilla occidentalis.

What Eats Velvet Ants?

Velvet ants are hunted by different predators like lizards, birds, toads, moles, shrews, and more. It can be a little hard to catch them, especially the females, since they have developed a lot of defenses to keep the potential predators at bay.

We will discuss these defense techniques in detail in the next section.

Adaptations of Velvet Ants To Avoid Predators

The males can avoid attacks from predators flying into safe spots, but since the female can’t fly, they often rely on their ability to deliver painful stings to defend themselves.

Also, these wasps have tough exoskeletons, which makes it hard for the predators to attack them directly.

Moreover, their bright-colored bodies are an indication of danger or toxicity to the predators looking to hunt them.

It is fascinating how they make up for the absence of flying ability by developing these additional defenses.

Velvet Ant

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a velvet ant hurt you?

The male velvet ants do not sting and are completely harmless. However, the females are stinging insects, and these stings are extremely painful.
Therefore, you should never approach these insects recklessly. The bites will also cause problems like redness, swelling, and irritation.

Can you keep velvet ants as pets?

Although they are tiny and are brightly colored, you shouldn’t keep velvet ants as pets. Females are dangerous, and they can sting the people in your family.
The stings are extremely painful and will cause problems like redness, swelling, and irritation.

What kills velvet ants?

Female velvet ants have a solid defense system making them tough to hunt, but certain predators can easily catch and kill these wasps.
Toads, lizards, moles, slugs, birds, etc., are some of the top predators of these insects.

Do velvet ants drink water?

Yes, adult velvet ants highly rely on water and nectar to fulfill their diets.
When they are in the larval stage, they often kill and eat the already present larvae in the nest of the host, where the female chooses to lay eggs.
Due to this nature, these insects fall in the category of parasitic wasps.

Cowkiller

Wrap Up

There is often a lot of confusion regarding the eating habits of the velvet ants. A big reason behind this is the fact that the adults and the larvae have different diets.

Also, since they are called cow killers, it might give an impression of them being a carnivore. But the adult does not kill or consume cows.

We hope the article gave you a clear overview of what these wasps eat. Thank you for reading the piece.

Reader Emails

Many of our readers are fascinated by these colorful-looking insects, and some even want to keep them as pests. 

Over the years, questions about the diet of these bugs have come up many times on our website, and we are sharing some of the thoughts from our readers below.

Letter 1 – Cow Killer

 

Red Velvet Ant
Hi!
I took these pics of a red velvet ant on 09/25/2006 in Kentucky. That is one of the most beautiful *bugs* in our back yard. Have a great day!
Caroline



Hi Caroline,
We are so happy to hear that you appreciate the beauty of this fascinating flightless female wasp that is commonly called a Cow Killer because of her painful 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 17. Dasymutilla sp. hope this helps a bit.

Letter 2 – Cowkiller

 

Ever seen one of these?
Six legs, but no elbowed antennae. Haven’t been able to find it on the internet.
Doug



Hi Doug,
Once we tell you this is a type of Velvet Ant commonly called a Cowkiller, you should be able to find thousands of images online. We have an entire page devoted to Velvet Ants since we have gotten so many identification requests. When you don’t know a name, the best way to use a search engine like Google is with a short description. As a test, we tried “ant red and black furry” and “ant red and black fuzzy” and both immediately led us to our own What’s That Bug? Velvet Ant page as well as numerous other correct internet sites. We are baffled as to why you came up blank.

Letter 3 – Cowkiller

 

What is this bug? August 23, 2009 Can you please tell me what this bug is and if it is poisonous? Belinda DiGerolamo Carriere, MS
Cowkiller
Cowkiller
Hi Belinda, This is a species of Velvet Ant known commonly as a Cowkiller because of its painful sting.  The female Velvet Ants are flightless wasps, and the non-stinging males have wings.

Letter 4 – Cow Killer

 

Fuzzy Red and Black ant looking thing Location:  North East Arkansas, United States September 3, 2010 3:22 pm Hi. I just found this little horror running around on my kitchen floor. I trapped him under a little plastic container and as soon as I did it started hissing at me! I could hear it from two feet away! Now when I hold the container to my ear (with a lid on of course) it’s constantly making this strange high pitched ’khtkhtkhtkht’ noise. It looks VERY mean. It’s roughly a half an inch long and maybe a little more than a quarter of an inch wide. Red and black striped, very mean looking. Found in:  North Eastern Arkansas 3:15pm Signature:  Jesse
Cow Killer
Hi Jesse, This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp in the family Mutillidae.  It is a Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis, and it has earned its common name because the sting is reported to be extremely painful, so those warning colors are well earned.  Our favorite part of your letter is your description of the noises made by your Cow Killer.  The are able to make noise by stridulation or rubbing body parts together.

Letter 5 – Cowkiller

 

Interesting Red and Black Insect Location: Charlotte, NC July 4, 2011 4:26 pm July 4, 2011 Greetings! I stumbled upon the red and black bug pictured below today and I was curious what it might be. It looks like an over-sized ant. It does not have wings but it moves pretty quickly. Any Ideas? Signature: Nick
Cowkiller
Hi Nick, This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp that is reported to pack a wallop of a sting, hence the common name Cowkiller.

Letter 6 – Cowkiller

 

Weird lookin bug! August 20, 2011 So we just pulled into a campsite outside of Mobil, Alabama and saw this little guy running around. Never seen them were I’m from any ideas? Thanks Sean Reid
Cowkiller
Hi Sean, We hope our response got to you before you tried picking up this Velvet Ant.  Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps and they can sting.  This species, Dasymutilla occidentalis, is reported to have a sting that is so painful they are called Cowkillers.  Once a reader supplied a comment that when cows get stung, they often begin running, sometimes falling down and injuring themselves to the point that they have to be put down, hence the name Cowkiller.

Letter 7 – Cow Killer

 

Subject: is this a spider or an ant? Location: Covington, ga September 15, 2013 1:48 pm my husband says ant, I say spider Signature: felicia
Cow Killer
Cow Killer
Hi Felicia, This is neither a spider nor an ant, so neither of you is correct, however, if points are awarded for closeness, your husband would be the winner.  This is a Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis, and it is a flightless female wasp in the family Mutilidae.  Ants and Wasps are classified in the same order, Hymenoptera, and the common name of the members of the family Mutilidae is Velvet Ant, so your husband has the proximity of the order as well as the common name of the family.  Cow Killers get their common name because of the alleged pain of the sting they deliver.  It is said to be painful enough to kill a cow, however, a cow would not directly die from the sting.  We have heard that stung cows will sometimes run, and it is possible they might run into a ditch where they might break their necks or run into a road where they might get hit by a truck.  At any rate, you should not try to handle a Cow Killer, which we have included in our Big 5 tag. Hi Daniel Thank you! I did some research after I emailed you and found out what it was. I have a child who is completing a “bug project” and seemingly we are finding all types of bugs. I am exited about bugs, I feel as if I should have become an entomologist :o) Thanks you for your labor of love, your response is very much appreciated!

Letter 8 – Cowkiller

 

Subject: Red and black bug Location: Southside Virginia July 26, 2014 1:39 pm What kind of a bug looks like a giant ant that is red and black and fuzzy. Lives in Southside Virginia? Signature: Gayle
Cowkiller
Cowkiller
Dear Gayle, This Cowkiller is a Velvet Ant, a type of flightless female wasp reported to have an extremely painful sting.

Letter 9 – Cow Killer

 

Subject: Bug Identification Location: Suffolk, VA 23432 September 13, 2014 6:11 pm Can you tell me what this insect is?it looks lake a large black and red ant. Signature: Thank you! John Lee
Cowkiller
Cow Killer
Dear John Lee, Though this Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis, is in the family with members commonly called Velvet Ants, they are actually flightless female wasps that are reported to have a very painful sting.

Letter 10 – Cow Killer

 

Subject: Black and Red Ant-like bug Location: Eastern Shore Va., Assawoman August 21, 2015 7:59 am Eastern Shore of Va….this bug was in my yard….followed it across the small backyard where it disappeared into a grassy clump…no flying, it just crawled…I’m curious about it as the colors seem to shout “don’t touch me”….and I have pets in that area….any help would be appreciated… Signature: Kathy M.
Cow Killer
Cow Killer
Dear Kathy, The aposomatic or warning coloration on this Cow Killer, a species of Velvet Ant is doing its job.  The Cow Killer is reported to have a very painful sting, prompting us to include it in our Big 5 tag of insects that can cause pain or harm.  Velvet Ants are actually flightless female wasps.

Letter 11 – Bug of the Month June 2016: Velvet Ant

 

Subject: Ant ? Wasp? Location: Rancho Santa Margarita ca May 27, 2016 8:00 pm I found this today when I was doing some planting in my backyard. I’ve never seen anything like this but we get odd creatures all the time. I’m glad I found your site so I can get help identifying some of these that I find. The white contrast with the black legs was so striking! Not knowing what it is I kept my dog, who found it, away. Should I be concerned about more showing up? Signature: Curious critter finder
Velvet Ant
Velvet Ant
Dear Curious critter finder, This is both an Ant and a Wasp.  Your female, flightless Wasp in the family Mutillidae is commonly called a Velvet Ant, so she is an Ant by name and a Wasp by classification, though for even more clarification, both Wasps and Ants are classified together in the Order Hymenoptera.  Velvet Ants are not aggressive, but they are very active and purposeful, and they will defend themselves with a very painful sting should you or your dog bother one with an exposed body part.  We are going to make your sighting the Bug of the Month for June 2016.  We have had the Cow Killer, a common Velvet Ant from the eastern portion of North America featured in the past as the Bug of the Month in August 2012, but this time we want to feature the diverse Velvet Ants found in the southwest.  Many Velvet Ants sport aposomatic or warning coloration, often red or orange and black, to advertise their painful stings.  This particular individual, which may be Dasymutilla sackeni, is well represented on BugGuide with individuals from California.
Velvet Ant
Velvet Ant

Letter 12 – Cowkiller

 

Subject:  cow killer or Velvet ant Geographic location of the bug:  humble texas Date: 01/19/2018 Time: 01:35 PM EDT Your letter to the bugman: here sir are 3 pics of this  beautiful female wingless Wasp, I found in Humble Texas . It was about as round as a chocolate mini tootsie roll candy and about 1 &1/4 inches long , and very beautiful. after letting it crawl all over my arms chest and shoulder, I took it to the fence line and leaned back against a tall cedar tree that was surrounded by smaller nest of wild bee’s . and it went after the other bee’s nest . I thought cool no more pesky and bothersome sweat bee’s and mock honey bee’s. I watched it for about a month and then it was gone . it was one of the most beautiful Little wasp I have ever seen and very genital with me as I was with it  . I do feel blessed to have been able to witness such a beautiful little critter doing its thing . Have a blessed day Sir. How you want your letter signed:  Mr David Mullins
Cowkiller
Dear Mr. Mullins, Your account of your encounter with this beautiful Cowkiller, the largest North American Velvet Ant, is so earnest that we are truly touched, but you should be warned that the sting of a Cowkiller is reported to be very painful.  You are a brave soul to allow it to crawl all over your arms chest and shoulder.  She obviously did not feel threatened by the experience.  We strongly suspect, though, that your experience was genial or gentle rather than genital.
Cowkiller

Authors

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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