Beware the Cow-Killer

Velvet ants- which aren't really ants at all- are wingless wasps that parasitize ground-nesting bees. They are attractive insects, bearing bright colors and cute frizzy hair. But in case you are ever tempted to pick up one of those cuddly-looking little guys, let the photo above serve as a reminder about what lies at the tail end: an unusually long, flexible stinger. As you can see, the wasp is capable of swinging it back over her shoulder, with perfect aim, to zing the forceps. The venom is potent, and in some parts of the U.S. these insects are called "Cow-Killers". As is always the case with solitary wasps, the sting is only deployed defensively. If you don't bother the velvet ants, they won't bother you.

When not attacking entomologists, the wasp in the top photo (a nocturnal species in the genus Sphaeropthalma) looks like this:

Thanks to Kevin Williams for the collection, the identification, and for holding the forceps.

More like this

Getting stung by insects hurts, and some hurt (a LOT) more than others. Of course, this necessitates a 'sting pain' index by which to compare the aftereffects of meeting the business end of a stinger. Why, just last weekend when i was on an ill-fated canoe trip (I dumped out twice, in freezing…
Camponotus rosariensis tending scale insects in Argentina Another piece of the Camponotus hyperdiversity puzzle was published this week in BMC Evolutionary Biology. The reasons behind the tremendous richness of Camponotine ants- a worldwide group of conspicuous insects containing more than a…
Atta texana queen and worker Ant queens are those individuals in a nest that lay the eggs.  They're pretty important, of course, as without reproduction the colony dwindles and disappears. Understandably, ant-keepers have an interest in making sure their pet colonies have queens.  Conversely,…
If you've ever spent time photographing ants the above shot will look familiar: off-frame and out of focus. Because ants are small and speedy, they are among the most difficult insects to photograph. Just capturing an active ant somewhere in the frame can be regarded as an achievement, never…

I SAW ONE OF THESE COW KILLERS TODAY 27 JULY 2008 IN SANFORD, NC I WAS TEPTED TO PICK IT UP BUT NOW IM GLAD I DIDNT AFTER READING ALL THESE ARTICLES ON THESE BEASTS.

By wes smith (not verified) on 27 Jul 2008 #permalink

I SAW ONE OF THESE COW KILLERS TODAY 27 JULY 2008 IN SANFORD, NC I WAS TEMPTED TO PICK IT UP BUT NOW IM GLAD I DIDNT AFTER READING ALL THESE ARTICLES ON THESE BEASTS.

By wes smith (not verified) on 27 Jul 2008 #permalink

August 2 I have just found two of these "cow killer" ants in my yard this morning! They are huge and very scarey. Is the male usually close by and aggressive?

By Donna Cain (not verified) on 02 Aug 2008 #permalink

I saw one of these, but much redder, at Lake Gaston today, August 2, 2008. The color was amazing and it was close to 1/2" long.

August 16, The wife and I have found cow killer, velvet ants in our yard. We live in Pamlico in Pamlico county. Took some research to find out what they are. Now we know not to touch them. We think we have bumble bee nests somewhere nearby.

My Fiance and I live in Rocky Mount and we were on our porch smoking, and we saw one of these walking across the porch. It scared me but he wanted to pick it up, im glas he didnt!

I found one on my classroom floor when I was trying to organize posters. I was on the carpet and all of the sudden it felt like my foot rolled over a prickly fern. I looked down and saw this one inch creature scurrying away from me. My pain turned from prickly, to tingly, to BURNING! It hurt but I don't think it was comparable to killing a cow. However, it's two days later and my foot is still burning and itchy.

By Trish Ireland (not verified) on 23 Aug 2008 #permalink

I found one of these today (8/18/08) in my driveway (Jacksonville, NC)... totally freaked me out! I didn't touch it cause it looked potentially dangerous but I tried stepping on it to kill it. That bug is tough! I stepped on her like 10 times and she wouldn't die! I didn't know what it was so I sprayed every kind of insect killer I had on her LOL

The males have wings and cannot sting. They are found more common in the hot summer months.

By Trevor Wilson (not verified) on 26 Oct 2008 #permalink

Man, These things freak me out, one day i picked one up with tweezers and it was like an inch and a half long.....i'm talking about the stinger OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You people that claim this "Cow Killer" in the male sex does not have a stinger are 100% wrong, they sure do have a stinger, the same length or almost the same length as it's much more colorful female partner.

A very large, bright red one was spotted while cutting the grass today. Eastern VA. Never seen one before, very interesting reading about them now. Hope they go away.

August 4, 2009 saw one on the side of the house. Did not do anything cause I figured I would just knock it off. About 10 minutes later it was on the other side of the house by the car when I went to leave. My 5 year old was scared to death, cause I tried stepping on it several times and it was still moving. I had flip flops on and I could feel how hard it's body was trying to squish it. I didn't get it squished but looked for it when I got back. It was laying on it's back with it's legs in the air. I assume that it had enough damage to it finally to die. They are pretty but at the same time they are scary....This was in Dunn NC.

I first ran into one of these things at Fort Benning Georgia, while in basic training.

Literally took me 10 minutes to kill it, i was too afraid to stop trying after the first few boot stomps.

It screams, it's tough, and it's the only time my DI was nice to me. "If that thing gets you soldier, I'm gonna laugh my ass off"

Since I live in Georgia, it's at the top of my watch out for list. I take every opportunity to educate those around NOT to screw with this bug.

Growing up in rural country of central Florida, I spent much of my boyhood barefooted. I shall never forget the stings of a "cow killer ant". Simply excruciating. I've been stung maybe 4 times in my life and each time I thought it would probably be better to just die. It's much more intense than the common wasp sting. Today I found one in my back yard, (central Georgia) and I gave her the respect she taught me as a youth. She is now in a glass jar awaiting judgment and sentencing.

By James R. M. (not verified) on 10 Aug 2009 #permalink

I saw two of these freakin scary bugs just a few weeks back (mid July) while walking my dog in my neighborhood north of Atlanta. The first one I came across was on my front porch and scared me to death. It must have been over an inch long. Luckly I had enough sense to realise killing it with flipflops wasn't a smart idea. The next day, further on down the street, I came across another one. It was about the same size as the first, and like the first, I decided not the squish it. However, my younger sister was with me, so I used a stick to pick it up to show her. This cow killer made a very similar pose as the bug in the first picture, and at the sight of the stinger I dropped the bug and ran off. I read they only come out in hot summer weather, and since the temperature has gone down, I haven't seen another.

I was visiting my father in Texas. My family and I went on a walk in the forest. We found 2 and collected them . Not knowing what they were. We picked them up with nets and brought them back to put in a tank full of toads the kids caught the day earlier. The next day we had found all the toads had died. The two cow killers were the only ones that were living. We found out what thery were that day. Needless to say, we smached them.

Dennis,

Males do not have a stinger in any wasp, bee, or ant. The stinger is a modified organ called the ovipositor wich onlly the females have.

By C.M. Wilson (not verified) on 26 Aug 2009 #permalink

I found a cow killer on my front porch, and promptly caught it in a nearby glass, with a tupper ware bowl for a lid. I then woke up my wife to come see the big game I had trapped. When I described the beast to her she knew it was a "cow killer" I had never heard of such a thing. She told me that they are ants, and don't sting... "I think" I promptly released it into my neighbors yard. Fort Mill, SC.

We just moved to North Little Rock, AR. We were getting in the car when my 3 year old son said look at this ladybug. I looked at it and said I don't think that is a ladybug. I thought it was pretty. We went on to my other son's football practice and I asked a parent what this insect was. They all replied together,"DON'T TOUCH IT". One parent said she knew it by cow killer but didn't know the proper name. I came home and looked up more info. I'm glad my son didn't touch it.

I'm 54 years old..and have lived in Evansville, IN my whole life and this is the first year I have seen one of these........and I've seen about 6 of them this summer in my yard. Are they becoming more prevalent in this area ? Wonder why ? People that I talk to say they've never heard of them or seen one. What's the deal ????