Red velvet ant, also commonly called cow ant, cow killer ant, or eastern velvet ant, is actually a species of parasitic wasps that belong to the family Mutillidae and is typically found in the eastern United States. Since female red velvets are wingless and have dense, brightly colored fur all over their body, they are often mistaken for a true ant, and hence they get their common name. The cow killer ants are the largest among all the velvet ant species that are found in the eastern US.
Size: Being the largest of all velvet ant species in the eastern US, it can have a length of 0.75-0.87 in (1.9-2.2 cm)
Color: Red velvet ant is brightly colored, with an overall black body having areas of a bright orange-red pattern on its thorax and abdomen.
Body: The females have ant-like body shape while the males are characterized by a wasp-like body. They have dense, velvet-like fur all over their body. Their outer shell is hard, rounded, and slippery.
Legs: It has six powerful and muscular legs, which it uses for running faster to escape from predators.
Sexual Dimorphism: Adult male red velvet ants, unlike the females, have four translucent black wings. The males also lack a stinger, which is found in female red velvets.
This wasp species is found in the eastern United States, and its distribution range starts from Connecticut and Missouri in the north to Texas and Florida in the south.
What Kind of Habitats do Red Velvet Ants live in
The cow killer ants are often seen running around open, sunny areas such as yards, gardens, pastures, lawns, and non-shaded parts of forests. They might occasionally wander into houses and buildings.
Red velvet ants usually have a life expectancy of less than one year, during which they undergo several life stages, including grub, larva, and pupa.
Adult red velvet ants mainly consume nectar and water while the immature stages eat larvae and parasitize insects, including bees, wasps, beetles, and flies.
Red velvets are usually solitary, and some individuals can be nocturnal. The female ants are generally active during the day.
Some female velvet ants run erratically on bare, open grounds or sandy areas during the summer months.
The females are quick-moving, aggressive, and may take a defensive stance when threatened or attacked.
Male red velvets fly low over plants and grasses to search for mating partners.
When harassed or threatened, the velvet ants produce a loud squeak as a warning signal to deter potential predators.
While the female red velvet ants cannot bite, they use a needle-like stinger (hidden at the end of their abdomen) to deliver an extremely painful sting. They use this defensive strategy against potential predators.
Males use their wings to fly away and escape from predators. The females, on the other hand, have strong legs that help them to run quickly and wrestle their way out of predators’ mouths.
They use their bright colors as a signal to warn predators that they can sting and so they should stay away. They display their coloration to indicate that they are not worth attacking.
Their well-developed glands produce odorous ‘allomones’, which they use for deterring predators.
Mating and Reproduction
Male red velvets fly low above plants and grasses in search of potential mating partners. After mating, female cow killers dig into the nest of a host insect, which usually includes a wasp burrow or a ground-nesting bee, and they deposit their eggs near the larvae or pupae inside.
The eggs rapidly hatch into white, legless grubs that eventually consume their hosts within one or two weeks. They go through a few larval stages before transforming into pupae.
Red velvet ants have not been listed by the IUCN Red List or any other major conservation programs.
The red velvet ants’ sting has mildly toxic venom that causes intense pain in humans and other animals. Although their sting is not fatal for humans, dogs, and cows, the pain it causes has earned them the bad reputation of being ‘cow killers’.
Since red velvet ants have a wide range of defense mechanisms, ranging from a hard exoskeleton, painful sting, warning coloration, loud squeaking, and a smelly chemical deterrent, researchers consider them to be “basically invincible”.