Velvet ants are really pretty and, despite their ability to sting, are a favorite of many bug enthusiasts. But where are velvet ants found in the US? Let us check it out.
Have you ever heard of cow killer ants? Well, the name might sound highly intimidating, but these tiny insects are nowhere near capable of killing cows.
In this article, we will share details that will help you know this insect better.
Are Velvet Ants Really Ants?
Velvet ants might look similar to big hairy ants, but these insects are a type of wasps.
If you look closely, you will notice that they have straight antennae, while the ants have elbowed-shaped antennae.
These wasps have a painful sting and are also commonly known as cow killers or cow killer ants.
Velvet ants have brightly-colored yellow and red bodies which are covered with dense hair.
They are considered solitary wasps and are often seen roaming around the yards during the months of July, August, and September.
Can They Fly?
The male adult velvet ants have two pairs of black and transparent wings. The female velvet ant, on the other hand, has no wings, and it certainly can’t fly.
Due to the absence of wings, the female look much similar to ants. The adults can be spotted flying around flowers in search of nectar.
Why Do They Mimic Ants?
Different organisms mimic each other as an adaptation to survive certain conditions and dangers. The female velvet ants mimic some activities of the ants to defend against potential predators.
One of the main reasons behind this is that the wingless females of this species can’t fly to safety when they are attacked, so they develop additional techniques to stay safe.
Moreover, ants are considered one of the hardest prey in the insect world. Their ability to lift heavy loads and fight in groups helps them repel many predators.
Therefore, mimicking an ant is certainly a smart idea on the part of the velvet ant.
Apart from mimicking ants, cow killers also show aposematic signals through their colors to warn predators that they are hard to eat.
These warning signals are seen all across the insect world, including in ladybugs and many species of butterflies
Where Are They Found?
The species of velvet ants are scattered across the world. The red velvet ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) is a common one found all over the US.
You can see these wasps all throughout Missouri to Connecticut in North America.
In South America, you can spot velvet ant species from Texas to North Florida. They are also found in some regions of Australia and the UK.
What is Their Habitat Like?
Velvet ants usually do not build their own nests. They invade the nests of other insects, like ground-nesting bees, and lay their eggs near the existing larvae.
Once the eggs hatch, the velvet ant larvae kill and consume the larvae of the existing species that their parents had removed from the nest. In this way, these wasps are parasitoids.
Due to this tendency, the females are often seen near places where the hosts build their nests.
You can also spot them in sunny and dry areas where bees make their nests. Lawns, cemeteries, and non-shaded areas of forest are also ideal living spots for these wasps.
What Do They Eat?
Adult velvet ants mostly depend on nectar and water to fulfill their diets. This is not different from most other wasp species.
The velvet ant larvae, on the other hand, eat the host larvae and pupae to fulfill their nutritional requirements. Velvet ant larvae are parasitoids, a common characteristic in most wasps.
Are They Dangerous?
The male velvets ants can’t sting and will cause no harm to humans. However, the females are stinging insects that can deliver painful stings when they are threatened.
Their stingers are large, which these females also use as an ovipositor.
According to Schmidt’s sting pain index, the pain intensity of the bite is ranked 3 out of 4, where four is the highest and most painful.
But apart from the excruciating pain, the bites are rarely dangerous. In fact, the name cow killers is a bit of a stretch. Velvet ants are not capable of killing cows or even dogs or cats.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are velvet ants rare?
In the United States, you can find red velvet ants in Missouri, Connecticut, Texas, and Florida. They love to be around dry and warm areas like lawns and cemeteries.
There are many species of velvet ants scattered all over the world. You can find them in the UK and Australia as well.
Can velvet ants hurt you?
vMale velvets ants don’t sting or bite humans and are completely harmless. However, the females will deliver highly painful stings if they feel threatened.
Apart from the pain, it causes swelling, redness, and irritation in the wounded area. But thankfully, these bites are mostly not dangerous and won’t cause any serious trouble.
Can you touch a velvet ant?
You should not try to touch or hold velvet ants, especially the females. These insects are usually non-aggressive, but if they feel threatened, they will certainly sting you.
Their sting can inflict a great amount of pain. If you want to touch them, it is better to wear gloves so they can’t reach your skin and sting.
Can you keep velvet ants as pets?
You should not keep velvet ants as pets because the females will sting you and your family members.
Adding to that, these stings are highly painful and will cause severe redness, swelling, and irritation.
The males, on the other hand, are equipped with wings which means they will keep flying around your house like pests.
Velvet ants are quite common in the US, but outside, they are only found in the US and Australia in limited spots.
They get their name due to their ant-like appearance and the thick coat of hair covering their brightly-colored bodies.
The males and the females have different features which they use to survive against predators. The female velvet ants are capable of delivering painful stings to humans and pests. Therefore you must never handle them recklessly.
The bites can cause other problems like irritation, redness, swelling, and more.
Thank you for reading; we hope we were able to answer most of your questions, and do drop us a comment below if you need any more clarifications!
Over the years, many of our readers have asked us to identify velvet ants. They are found in many places in the North American continent, so the question about which all states they are present in is quite a common one.
Do read the emails and see the beautiful pics captured by our readers.
Letter 1 – Unknown Velvet Ant from Arizona
Greetings, I am having trouble with the identification of this velvet ant. It loves to have a little mist along with it’s fruit nectar. So as you scroll down the hair gets drier in each photo. I believe it to be in the Dasymutilla family but can’t key it out with the books that I have at my disposal. Your help with the identification would be greatly appreciated. Neat little gal. Thanks for your help and great web site, sincerely,
We could not find a convincing match for your Velvet Ant on the BugGuide pages, though Dasymutilla coccineohirta looks close. Perhaps Eric Eaton will be able to assist us.
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 1. dasymutilla coccineohirta. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 2 – Velvet Ant from Arizona
What’s that Ant?
Was on a ‘fun walk’ on the Navajo Reservation when I came across this interesting little ant. I wish the picture was a little clearer but it wouldn’t stop when I asked it to. I ran across it near Kayenta, Arizona. Earlier, I had seen a similar ant except it was blue. There are so many interesting bugs on the reservation. I’ll have to find more and take pictures of them.
This is not an ant. It is a flightless female wasp commonly called a Velvet Ant. According to the photos on BugGuide, this would appear to be in the genus Pseudomethoca.
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 16. Pseudomethoca sp. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 3 – Velvet Ant from Mexico
Hi, I work as webmaster in small new Zoo, at Puerto Vallarta Mexico. I like a lot insect so in my free time I go around in dry jungle here to observe plants and discover insects I have never seen! Well so i have found this little creatures, hope you could identify them. I think the first one is a velvet ant (cow killer) , does this animal really sting to kill a man or a cow¡? I didnt have my macro at that time so the pics are not really good. … I will aprecciate your answer, and it will be really grate to understand the behavior of this little amazing creatures of the low level world =) Thank you.
We are happy to get your Velvet Ant photo. Its markings are very different from any other photos we have received. The sting of a Velvet Ant is very painful, but will not kill a person or a cow unless there are extenuating circumstances like allergies. We don’t know what your caterpillar is, but it sounds like it might have been parasitized, which interfered with the normal life cycle.
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 4 – Velvet Ant
Never seen this bug before
I’ve looked over many pages on your site and just haven’t seen anything quite like this. It’s possible I just didn’t click on the right link to find this bug, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask anyway. My mother and I own a house in Quail Valley, CA, and we see this bug appear every now-and-then in our front yard. My Mom says she thinks it kind of looks like an ant, I say it looks like a beetle. Either way, this thing is weird! Bright red and dark black – hairy all over. It’s about an inch and a half long. I attached a picture. Tell me if you know about this creature! Thanks
This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp. Watch out, she stings. We found a species match on BugGuide for you. We believe your species is Dasymutilla magnifica.
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. 29. Dasymutilla magnifica. hope this helps a bit.
Letter 5 – Velvet Ant
Black insect with fuzzy redish orange abdomen Wed, Nov 26, 2008 at 5:30 PM Found in Peoria, Arizona in November. A solid looking 1 1/4 inch long and maybe a 1/2 inch wide insect, deep black with a vibrant redish-orange fuzzy abdomen. No wings & very busy walking around looking for something. If you were going to draw this critter, you would use a sharpie due to its solid features. The Nicoloffs Peoria, AZ (out in the desert) Dear Nicoloffs, This is a Velvet Ant, one of a colorful group of wasps in the family Mutillidae. Male Velvet Ants have wings, but females are flightless and resemble colorful hairy ants. Only the female is capable of stinging, and the sting of several species is quite painful. We believe, based on images posted to BugGuide that your Velvet Ant is Dasymutilla magnifica, but the photo is so blurry, it is impossible to be certain.
Letter 6 – Velvet Ant from Jalisco, Mexico
Giant furry ant or bee without wings? July 11, 2009 I found this inside out house. He was about 5/8 inches long. David Brownell Jocotepec, JAL, Mexico Dear David, Your insect is a flightless female wasp known as a Velvet Ant, but we do not know the species. It is probably in the genus Dasymutilla. We already posted another individual from Oregon today. Your photo is awesome.
Letter 7 – Velvet Ant
Black and Orange Fuzzy Butt Bug November 13, 2009 I saw this bug today, while hiking at Lake Pleasant (Arizona), it was walking very quickly on the ground. I only had a chance to get one photo. Hundewanderer Lake Pleasant, Arizona Hi Hundewanderer, This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp in the genus Dasymutilla. We believe, based on the location and on photos posted to BugGuide, that this might be Dasymutilla magnifica.
Letter 8 – Velvet Ant from Australia
aussietrev Black Velvet Ant February 16, 2010 Hi guys, Congratulations on being near the end with the book project. It has been hot and very wet around this way and over the last couple of days I have come across several of these male wasps hunting around in the sandy soil. There has been some females too but they don’t like the camera getting close. As an aside, I noticed the letter about the light and the funnel. One method of trapping insects is to bury a bottle with a funnel so that the lip of the funnel is at ground level. A light is suspended above it and ground dwellers walk to the light and fall into the funnel. Hope that sheds some light on it 🙂 aussietrev Burnett region. Queensland. Australia Hi Trevor, Welcome back. We have missed getting submissions from you. Your letter is a tad bit confusing. You talk about the male wasps hunting, and the females not letting the camera get close, yet you have submitted an image of a female. The female Velvet Ants are wingless and the males have wings. The Brisbane Insect website has photos posted that look very similar to your image, but alas, they have only identified it to the family level of Mutillidae. Another page on the Brisbane Insect website indicates that most species in Australia are in the genus Ephutomorpha, but that same page labels some wingless individuals as being male. The What Bug Is That? guide to Australian insects has a nice description of Velvet Ants.
Letter 9 – Cow Killer
Unknown ant-like insect July 16, 2010 Location: Virginia Okay, out in my yard today in Virginia, I encountered a bug I’ve never seen in my life. It’s mostly shaped like an ant, only massive like the size of a bee or such. It’s a deep, bright red with a couple black stripes across its abdomen and appears to have a somewhat velvety texture (though I didn’t touch it to make sure). It does not possess any wings. Normally, I’d just let it go but I have two small nephews staying with me right now and don’t want any harm to come to them. Deimos Hi Deimos, Congratulations on being the first person to use our brand new form. We hope our readership likes our new form and that it makes submitting identification requests easier. Your insect is a Velvet Ant known as a Cow Killer, Dasymutilla occidentalis. We hope you heeded the warning colors, because Velvet Ants are actually flightless female wasps that can sting. The common name Cow Killer refers to the sting being so painful it might kill a cow. Though the sting could not kill a cow, it is none the less reported to be quite painful.
Letter 10 – Velvet Ant
Flightless Bee and large Velvet Ant? Location: Sonoran Desert, Arizona August 5, 2010 4:06 pm I was camping in the Arizona Wilderness, just off of US93 on Wilderness Access Road 7469, when something bright red caught my eye on the ground. I stopped the Jeep and jumped out with my camera. I had no idea what it was, and trying to take a photo was comical, as it was scurrying about, non-stop! It looks like a bee with no wings, but it was the bright red bottom that amazed me. It is about 1 1/4” in length and has six legs. I have never seen anything like it. What is it? BJ Roberts Hi BJ, Based on photos posted to BugGuide, your Velvet Ant may be Dasymutilla nogalensis.
Letter 11 – Velvet Ant and California Harvester Ants
red bug Location: Anza, California June 30, 2011 6:32 am Hi, Photographed this fast little thingy on our property last year. I’ve seen a couple of them before, but they always seem to escape the frame before I can capture more than their tail-end leaving the picture. Any ideas please? Signature: Karen Hi Karen, The big gal is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp that packs quite a painful sting. We believe the red ants are California Harvester Ants, Pogonomyrmex californicus, which also sting. Thanks Daniel, Love the site, by the way.
Letter 12 – Velvet Ant
Big red ant Location: Wichita, Kansas, USA August 9, 2011 11:31 am I have seen a few of these big red ants in my finished basement in Kansas lately. It has been a record-setting hot summer, so we have spent a lot of time in the cooler basement. I live on the outskirts of Wichita, with a wheat field adjoining our property. The first time I saw one of these, I squished it with my finger. Actually, I thought I killed it, but I didn’t. I picked it up after stunning it, I guess, and it bit (or stung) me. Then I tried again with something hard, and it made quite a crunch. Today, my children caught one in a plastic baggie, so I have been trying to identify it. My first thought after internet searching was a velvet ant, but it is not that fuzzy and the stripe on the ant does not match the pictures I have found. It is about 1/2” long. The other one might have been slightly bigger. The main color is an orangish red or rust red. There is a definite white stripe, with black at the end of the last body segment. Can you identify it for me? (Sorry about the picture quality, but I didn’t want to let it out of the baggie.) The orange lines are 1/8” on a ruler. Signature: Nancy Hi Nancy, This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp, and the sting is reported to be quite painful. Not all Velvet Ants are as fuzzy as the commonly pictured Cow Killer. We will eventually try to identify the species. It resembles Dasymutilla nigripes which is pictured on BugGuide. Thank you. I believe you are correct. That photo matches much better. And the sting did hurt a lot. My finger was sore for about 20 minutes, I would guess. Nancy Reeves
Letter 13 – Velvet Ant from South Africa
Subject: ant Location: St Lucia, South Africa December 28, 2012 12:33 pm What k7nd of ant is this. Signature: any Dear any, This is a Velvet Ant in the family Mutillidae, a flightless female wasp (males have wings) that is reported to have an incredibly painful sting, if they are anything like their North American relatives.
Letter 14 – Ant from Malaysia is Echinopla melanarctos
Subject: black furry ant Location: Malaysia March 24, 2013 5:23 am size: ~1.5cm slow moving found in low land tropical forest nearby a stream. is it an ant or a velvet ant? Signature: wxchew Hi wxchew, Unless we are greatly mistaken, this is a Velvet Ant in the family Mutillidae, and not a true ant. Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps that are reported to pack a very painful sting. Male Velvet Ants have wings. Correction: Echinopla melanarctos Thanks to wxchew who wrote back in a comment, we now know that this is a real Ant, Echinopla melanarctos.
Letter 15 – Velvet Ant from Colombia: Traumatomutilla species
Subject: What’s This Bug? Location: Colombia November 9, 2013 11:34 pm I found this on the railing of the stairs of my work. Signature: Omar D. Hi Omar, We believe this is a Velvet Ant in the family Mutillidae. She looks very similar to the Hoplomutilla species from Guyana pictured on American Insects. Velvet Ants are actually flightless female wasps that reported deliver a painful sting if carelessly handled. Thanks Daniel! My bug really looks like a Velvet Ant. Thanks for the warning about the sting. Good to know.
Letter 16 – Velvet Ant from Greece
Subject: A weird insect Location: Greece,Rhodes January 30, 2014 6:25 am Hello, sorry about the comment but I was confused of this site. Well,this insect is almost 2 cm long, it hasn’t got any wings, its brown colour (near to red ),and the rest of it’s body is bee’s colour. It has got 6 legs and when i touched it, it made a sound like a hamster. Signature: Manol Hi Manol, Though in English it is commonly called a Velvet Ant, this is actually a flightless female wasp in the family Mutillidae. They are known for makings sounds as you described. We found a very similar looking Velvet Ant from Greece on FlickR, but it is not identified to the species level.
Letter 17 – Velvet Ant from Israel
Subject: looks like huge ant with yellow and black colors Location: Israel May 6, 2014 1:43 am Hi, Found this bug (image attached), looks like ant, big ant, with black back and yellow dots, bee colors. called it bant 🙂 Did you see something like this before? Signature: Best Regards, Tarik Haddad Hi again Tarik, Sorry about the very short reply yesterday. We were late. This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp, and North American relatives are reported to have a very painful sting, so we imagine the same is true of the Israeli species. Velvet Ants often have bright warning coloration, known as aposematic coloration, to warn people and predators to leave them alone.
Letter 18 – Velvet Ant from Spain
Subject: Velvet ant In Central Spain Location: Ocaña, Toledo July 10, 2014 3:15 am Hi, I found a female velvet ant yesterday just south of Madrid. Later on I saw what looked like a winged male. I am unfamiliar with Mutillidae of Spain and have failed to find any information on the species these may be. I have sent a photo of each, but the camera I used was somewhat poor. Another photo I found online, that seems to be of an identical animal is here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gails_pictures/6796465621/in/album-72157647857067094/ I appreciate that it is pretty much impossible to get a definitive species level ID without the actual animal, but any information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Signature: Bec Dear Bec, Thanks for sending your Velvet Ant image. We found a very similar looking Velvet Ant on FlickR that is identified as Sigilla dorsata and then we found an image on Invertebrados Insectarium Virtual to support that identification. Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps reported to have a very painful sting, and nonstinging male Velvet Ants have wings. Your winged insect is in the order Hymenoptera, which included Ants, Bees and Wasps, but we cannot confirm that it is a male Velvet Ant.
Letter 19 – Velvet Ant from Mexico
Subject: Spider? Ant? Location: San Jose del Cabo, BCS Mexico December 14, 2014 6:26 pm We are in Los Cabos Mexico. Have seen two of these on our patio today. What are they? Signature: Cheryl C. Dear Cheryl C., This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp in the genus Dasymutilla. You should try not to handle Velvet Ants, or handle with extreme caution as the sting is reported to be extremely painful. Only female Velvet Ants are flightless, and only female Velvet Ants sting.
Letter 20 – Velvet Ant and Wasp from Australia
Subject: Black Velvet Ant and ? Location: Oldbury Western Australia January 31, 2015 5:49 am Hi again, I could write to you just about every day asking about one bug or another, but I don’t like to BUG you too much! LOL… sorry… anyhow… I’m pretty certain second pic of a wingless wasp is a Black Velvet Ant (seems like a dumb name when it’s not an ant), although I don’t know the exact species name. I was mainly wondering, given the colour resemblance, if the first winged wasp is the male of the same species? They were both photographed on my property just south of Perth in Australia a day apart. If I am guessing wrong please correct me. Thanks. With appreciation, Signature: Jill Wozhere Dear Jill, We believe your identification of a female, flightless Velvet Ant is correct, and your individual resembles the example from the genus Bothriomutilla that is posted on the Brisbane Insect website. We do not believe the winged wasp is a male of the species, but we cannot provide an identification at this time. Velvet Ants are flightless female wasps, and Ants and Wasps are actually members of the same order and the common name Velvet Ant refers to the resemblance and flightlessness of the female. Thank you Daniel for your reply and the interesting information. Personally I still think they shouldn’t call it an ant if it isn’t actually an ant, but I won’t make a federal case out of it. If you find out the species of the other wasp, please let me know. Best regards, Jill Hi Daniel, Further to the unidentified wasp in one of the previous pic I sent… I’m guessing now that it is a female spider wasp from the family Pompilidae. I figure it’s a female, because I also found I had a pic *yes I took it and yes you’re welcome to have it, of mating wasps and with it being at the bottom, it just stands to reason it’s the female. (male has red abdomen and female has larger eye) Pic attached. What do you think? Hi again Jill, We agree that the mating wasps look like the same species as the single wasp image you submitted, and we also agree that they might be Spider Wasps. We do have a favor to request regarding future submissions. Please limit your submissions to one species per submission form and please use a new submission form for each submission. I really complicates our ability to post and archive submissions when multiple species occur in one email, and adding additional images to an existing email chain further complicates the posting process. We will create a new posting for the Flower Wasp.
Letter 21 – Velvet Ant from Zimbabwe
Subject: Ant/wasp…i dunno Location: Zimbabwe, Harare April 10, 2016 3:05 am Hi bugman I found this bug i’ve never seen before. Actually it found me…ouch! Please let me know what it is. Thanks Signature: R.C Dear R. C., Though they are commonly called Velvet Ants in North America, members of the family Mutillidae are actually wasps. Males are winged and look like typical wasps, but flightless female Velvet Ants more closely resemble Ants. Velvet Ants are reported to have a very painful sting. If you are interested, our good friend Lepidopterist Julian Donahue just forwarded us this marvelous link to BBC Earth regarding Velvet Ants. Thanks Daniel! Very informative article.
Letter 22 – Velvet Ant from Baja California
Subject: What is this bug??? Location: Los Barriles, Baja CA Sur May 6, 2016 5:33 pm Hi, I hope you can help identify this bug. It was crawling on my arm in the middle of the night, yikes. I swiped it off, very scratchy feeling. I didn’t notice the welt until the next morning and that was a week ago. Welt is getting bigger every day! We found two of them, one in the bed and one on the kitchen counter, have never seen one before. Signature: Maureen Dear Maureen, This is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female wasp in the genus Dasymutilla. Velvet Ants have a very painful sting. Based on your description, it does not sound like you were stung, as there would have been an immediate pain. We have not heard anything about Velvet Ants having urticating hairs that can cause irritation, a reaction that can be caused by handling Tarantulas and some caterpillars and certain plants like stinging nettles, but that sounds like the reaction you have had. We don’t normally cite Wikipedia, but they do have a very nice explanation on urticating hairs, but do not mention Velvet Ants. Encyclopedia of the Deserts does mention this phenomenon: “Females [Velvet Ants] produce noxious chemicals from the abdomen when disturbed, and when grabbed they bite viciously with large, sharp mandibles and sting with a long stinger that injects a painful toxin. In addition, the hairs on their bodies are like tiny spears (called urticating hairs) that cause considerable irritation to the mouth and nasal passages of animals that attack them.” See BugGuide for more information on Velvet Ants.
Letter 23 – Velvet Ant from Venezuela
Subject: Beautiful and big Ant Geographic location of the bug: Caracas, Venezuela Date: 08/01/2019 Time: 05:50 PM EDT Your letter to the bugman: I foud the ant at my yard this morning. It`s the second one I see in a year. it`s about 3 cmts. long. How you want your letter signed: Arturo Dear Arturo, We feel quite certain that this is a Velvet Ant, a flightless female Wasp in the family Mutillidae. We just hope we can find an image on the internet to confirm our identification. BINGO. Here is an image on Steemit, but alas, it is not identified to the species. This image on FlickR is identified as being in the genus Hoplomutilla. Instazu has many images. Velvet Ants are reported to have a very painful sting. One species of Velvet Ant from North America is commonly called a Cow Killer though we don’t know of any actual documentation of a cow dying from the sting of a Cow Killer.