The velvet ant (insect family Mutillidae) or cow killer is a unique insect that can be found in Florida. It is called a velvet ant because of the silky-looking hair that covers its body. This vividly colored coat is usually in shades of red to orange with black stripes. The other common name, cow killer, is given because people say that it looks big enough to kill a cow.
The velvet ant is actually not an ant, but a wasp. The females are wingless and run quickly across grassy areas in search of burrows occupied by ground bees or other wasps. They do this because they are parasitic insects, which means that they find the mature larva of ground bees and wasps and lay their eggs on them. When the velvet ant egg hatches, it then uses the bee or wasp larva as a source of food. What does this mean for us? Goodbye ground bees and wasps!
Another characteristic that sets them apart from other wasps is their solitary nature. They are loners, they do not live in colonies or form hives. The females spend their time racing across sandy areas in search of burrows to invade while the males fly (males have wings) in search of females to mate with. The only time velvet ants are together is for this sole purpose and it is for a very short period of time; like a minute, no exaggeration.
Although the velvet ant looks intimidating due to its large size and warning colors, it is not aggressive like so many other wasps. The female velvet ant does have a very large stinger though, which is tucked underneath the body, where it is not visible unless it is flipped over or if she feels threatened enough to expose it. This stinger does contain venom that is used to attack birds or lizards that might find the velvet ant tasty.
The only time humans are stung is when they handle or step on the wasp, so don’t try to pick it up or step on it, which is a common reaction many people have when they see a bug that freaks them out. I think you would have to really try to catch or step on one though, like I said, they are extremely quick! Trying to get a decent photo of one was no easy feat. The sting is extremely painful, but does not last and is very quick to heal. If you are allergic to stinging insects, I would definitely get in touch with your doctor, just to be on the safe side.
Remember, these wasps do more good than harm. They get rid of other bees and wasps that are aggressive and cause discomfort to us and our pets. I have seen them many times in my yard and around my garden, but never in my house. And when I did see the velvet ant, I had to pursue her in order to get a better look. I think this wasp is an easy one to coexist with and is best to just let it be.
Deyrup, Mark. Florida’s Fabulous Insects. World Publications. 2000. Pg.148
Carr, Anna. Rodale’s Color Handbook Of Garden Insects. Rodale Press, Inc. 1979. Pp.15-16
National Audubon Society Field Guide To North American Insects And Spiders. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Chanticleer Press, Inc. 1980. Pp. 325, 817.