Naturalist Fact: Cow Killer

Cow Killer (Dasymutilla occidentalis)

The “cow killer,” also known as a red velvet ant, is a wasp that has earned its name from its extremely painful sting. This wasp has probably not been responsible for the death of many livestock, but the family to which it belongs (Mutilladea) are said to have the most painful sting of any insect in North America!

The female cow killer is wingless making it resemble an ant. However, its large size (3/4 inch -1 inch), hairy body, and bright red color help distinguish from ants found in our area. The males look similar to the female with the exception of two pairs of black wings. If you look closely, the hair-like protrusions covering its body looks similar to the texture of velvet.

Cow killers are solitary wasps and can often be seen crawling along the ground in sandy places along roadsides, forest edges, and meadows during the warmer summer months. They range from the Atlantic coastal regions of New York to Florida, and along the Gulf coastal regions to Texas. The female will lay a single egg in another ground-nesting insect’s nest like bumble bees. Once the cow killer larva hatch, they consume the eggs or larvae in the nest where they have been laid.

So, if you see one of these brightly colored insects crawling around admire its beauty, but don’t try to catch it!

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