The Cow Killer and Other Misnomers

I was out looking at the insect activity on the Wild Lime (Zanthoxylum fagara) and spotted a velvet ant.  Figured it was a good time to dust off one of my lost articles on this oddly named species.

Dateline: July 13, 2012*
Talk about an insect with a misleading identity, meet the Eastern Velvet Ant a.k.a. Red Velvet Ant. Looks and sounds pretty and upon a cursory look, one would think it is a great common name…except for the fact that it is not an ant. The wingless females crawl along the ground and look like GIANT ants, giving rise to this general common name. The males have wings and do fly, behaving very much like solitary parasitoid wasps that they are. They are native to the eastern United States.

female travels by foot since it has no wings.

Now, this particular genus Dasymutilla spp., (likely occidentalis) has another interesting common name: Cow Killer. Mind you, these insects are likely incapable of killing a cow. Apparently since the female has the capability of repeated painful stings, someone who was barefoot in a cow pasture stepped on one declaring a sting so intense that they felt it could kill a cow…or a mule, depending on who’s common name you prefer to use. The males, on the other hand, don’t sting.

Males do fly

The females are quite eye-catching and you can’t miss them scurrying along through the grass with their Large, BRIGHT red and black hairy bodies which have the look of fine velvet. They also are so fast that it’s a battle to get a decent photo.  They aren’t known to be particularly aggressive, but still, you should give them a wide berth.

Even hiding in the ground covers, their bright coloring is hard to miss

They are a parasite of mostly bumblebee larva, but food can include flies, beetles, bees and other wasps. They apparently use the “hard stages” of their prey (e.g., pupae, ootheca and cocoons) and they are said to have a heck of a time locating potential hosts, thus their dizzying quest as they crawl endless paths in their search.

This female was on a mission to get away from the camera

Their beautiful coloring helps protect them from potential predators and it seems that it works well enough that there are no known predators of the velvet ant.

So, gaze at the beautiful velvet look of the female from afar and keep your shoes on.

*This is an update of a tale that was originally published by Loret T. Setters on July 13, 2012 at the defunct national blog
beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


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