Pest Identification

Learn More About the Pests Invading Your Home

Can a Red Velvet Ant Really Kill a Cow?

A red velvet ant sounds like some kind of fancy desert made from raspberry sauce and chocolate. But trust me, there is nothing sweet and delicious about the red velvet ant, which is not always red, not velvet, nor even an ant. The red velvet ant is a member of the Mutillidae family of more than 3,000 wasps. The wingless female wasps are covered with a dense pile of hair that is bright scarlet or orange. The wasps can also be silver, gold, black, or white. The black and white critters are sometimes called panda ants because of their (incredibly slight) resemblance to Chinese giant pandas.

Some prefer to dispense with the warm and fuzzy names and call the wasp the cow killer or cow ant. Once again, the name is inaccurate and an exaggeration. The sting of a red velvet ant is so painful that people say it could even kill a cow. But the sting won’t kill a bovine, a human, or any other creature. If you step on one barefoot, your screams might sound like you’re dying but unless you’re allergic, you will survive.

The thing is, the red velvet ant is not aggressive and will not try to escape if you should so foolishly try to handle it. Unlike most wasp species, the red velvet ant does not live in a colony or nest. They are solitary creatures that crawl across lawns, dig in the soil, and occasionally wander into garages and outbuildings. The critters feed on nectar and water, not beef.

Red velvet ants are most harmful to an insect known as the cicada killer wasp. In a snapshot of Mother Nature’s beauty, cicada killer wasps capture cicadas, paralyze them, and lay their eggs on the unfortunate victims. When the eggs hatch, the cicada killer wasp larva feed on the immobilized cicada. The developing cicada killer wasps then form cocoons. The adult female red velvet ant lays her eggs on the cocoons and when her babies hatch, they feed on the cicada killers. And the circle of nature keeps spinning.

Red velvet ants want nothing to do with humans, cows, or any other creature outside of the cicada killers. If you see one, leave it alone. If you must pick it up, wear leather gloves and protect your arms. And if you’re going to step on one, make sure you’re wearing good cowboy boots.