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.

34 thoughts on “Beware the Cow-Killer”

  1. Pingback: Beware the Cow-Killer

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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 ????

    1. LOL, small world! I am in Newburgh, IN and I just caught one of these “cow killers” and jumped right on to the computer to do some research about it. I actually heard it before I saw it! It was crawling on my pillow in my bed, right by my head. Needless to say, i am a bit scared to fall asleep tonight. I hope they don’t travel in packs!!

  20. I just moved to florida about 4 months ago and it has gotten very hot since. my little brother and I were outside today and came across a large red pretty ant like thing. We are from Minnesota and I had never seen anything like it. My Fiance works in the woods and they have all told us if it’s pretty it would probably hurt to touch it. So we smashed it repeatedly with a flip flop. We also have baby calves in the yard. Should I be worried?

    1. No need to be worried. Although the sting of these insects is extraordinarily painful, velvet ants are shy insects that won’t sting unless you pick them up. Their first instinct is to run and hide.

  21. Thanks for the info on these things. We never heard of them, and now they are all over our brand new sod which was delivered a couple of days ago. They DO attack if you water them, it seems. How do I know this? My wife was wearing socks & running shoes while watering our new sod, and one crawled up her shoe & sock and finally her leg… with bad results. CAN YOU HELP with pest-control of these things? They will ruin your day(s), big time, and may well be enough to kill our small dog. PLEASE HELP!?

  22. I was j ust outside andmy family and I were raking grass. We just killed 6 of them in my backyard. Some fly. Be aware.

  23. North central mo. A cow killer ran across the concrete next to me. I jumped
    And stomped on it. It then took off again. I stepped on it 3 more times before it stopped.
    One tuff bug!!!

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