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Agriculture and Natural Resources Blog
Jon ZawislakAssistant Professor, Apiculture and Urban EntomologyPhone: 501-671-2222Fax: 501-671-2252Email: email@example.com
Office:University of ArkansasDivision of AgricultureCooperative Extension Service2301 S. University AvenueLittle Rock, AR 72204
Austin JonesInstructor and Director of Undergraduate Education,Entomology and Plant PathologyPhone: 479-575-2445Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Office:University of ArkansasDale Bumpers College ofAgricultural, Food, and Life SciencesEntomology and Plant PathologyPTSC 217University of ArkansasFayetteville, AR 72701
By Jon Zawislak, Assistant Professor – Apiculture and Urban Entomology, Austin Jones, Instructor and Director of Undergraduate Education – Entomology and Plant Pathology, and Whitney Haigwood, Technical and Social Media Writer – Agriculture and Natural Resources
“Cow Killers?” “Velvet Ants?” Have you heard the story behind these brightly colored
Due to their large size, dense fur and bright coloration, these impressive insects
are commonly known as red velvet ants or Eastern velvet ants. They are also known
as the cow killer. Fun fact? They are not actually ants at all but wasps of the family
Mutillidae, with the largest and most commonly encountered species of velvet ants
in Arkansas having the scientific name Dasymutilla occidentalis.
But don’t wasps have wings? Not all of them! The females of this group are wingless,
can grow up to an inch long, and resemble large furry ants. The females are known
for their painful stings, which is one reason they have earned the common name of
“cow killer" or "cow ant.” Another story behind these names comes from the belief
that these insects, which run along the ground, could sting a feeding cow on the tongue
causing it to swell and suffocate the afflicted animal. However, no livestock fatalities
are currently known to have been recorded due to this scenario. As with all wasps,
only the females can sting, but they are not aggressive. They sting only in defense
if mishandled or otherwise provoked. Males have a set of dark transparent wings, and
the males and females have such different coloration that they may appear to be different
The females are nest parasites that seek to enter the burrow of a ground-nesting bee
or wasp and will lay an egg near each larva or pupae in the host nest. These eggs
hatch quickly and immobilize and then consume their host prey, developing in its host's
nest. The wasp’s dense velvety fur, and an extremely tough exoskeleton (so rigid
it is difficult to get an insect pin through to place specimens in a collection) with
rounded edges, helps protect them from bites and stings in case they surprise a host
bee or wasp nest occupant who doesn’t welcome their visit.
While velvet ants are not rare, and are brightly colored, they are not commonly noticed
by most people. They cause no damage, and no control measures are warranted as they
have no nests of their own for homeowners to be concerned with. Females are most likely
to be spotted running along the ground on a hot summer day in grassy fields with sandy
soil, where host nests and forage are typically found. They can also be found in lawns
and crossing driveways in rural and urban areas. Males feed on nectar primarily and
are most often seen feeding from or flying near flowers. If you are lucky enough to
spot one, just watch it for a moment, appreciating its beauty, and leave it to go
about its way.