Velvet ants are striking insects; they are memorable and interesting due to their fuzzy appearance and bright coloration. Their name is a bit of a misnomer though; they are not actually ants at all but are wasps. Their family name is Mutillidae and there are about 8,000 species of them worldwide. As a group, they exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning that the male and female look quite different from one another. With velvet ants, males have wings and are capable of flight while females are wingless.
In Kentucky, the most commonly inquired about velvet ant is the red velvet ant, also known by the colorful nickname “the cow killer.” This species (Dasymutilla occidentalis) has contrasting red and black coloration (maybe they’re Louisville fans) that highlights their potential danger. They are also famous for “squeaking” when they feel threatened. They can be found near meadows, on forest edges, in fields, and in lawns. As adults, they drink nectar from flowers but have a unique way of raising their young. After mating, the female will seek out a nest of bumble bees (usually the Southern plains bumble bee) and lay their eggs on the bumble bee brood. They hatch and then devour the baby bumble bees alive. Other types of velvet ants may attack the nests of solitary wasps, such as the cicada killer.
Because of their interesting coloration, their fuzzy hair, and cute squeaks, some people want to handle the velvet ant. In particular, children can make this mistake. This insect can inflict an extremely painful sting, so powerful it can kill a cow, according to urban legend. While not that quite that potent, it does rank a 3 out of 4 on the sting pain scale developed by Dr. Justin Schmidt. The best advice is to avoid them, and look at them from afar. Be sure to teach kids about what they look like and why they shouldn’t pick them up. They don’t have a nest like a honey bee or yellowjacket, so they are not aggressive defenders like those species.
By Jonathan Larson, Extension Entomologist