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Cow Killers

Bayou-Diversity (29 July 2018) Boys are impressionable creatures. They hone in on pronouncements that combine adventure and danger. Such was my experience many years ago when I was warned by elders to avoid at all costs an insect with the moniker “cow killer.” How could such a beast in our midst not be a call to action? Colloquial synonyms for this organism are cow ant or red velvet ant. It was claimed that the sting was so terrible that it could dispatch a healthy cow. I set out to catch one in a Mason jar.

It was many years after that encounter when I figured out that my early mentors were not first class entomologists. So-called red velvet ants are large, colorful insects about ¾ inch long. They are black with dense patches of reddish-orange hair on the thorax and abdomen. In Louisiana they are often seen in late summer running around in open areas, especially those that are sandy. Females lack wings and do indeed possess a potent sting though verified records of cattle mortality have not come to light. Males are similar but have two pairs of wings and cannot sting. And here’s a bit of relevant trivia: they are solitary wasps, not ants. They differ from ants in having straight antennae rather than antennae with a jointed “elbow.” Ants also have a much narrower “waist.”

The life cycle of cow-killer velvet ants is fascinating. Females seek out ground-nesting bees such as bumble bees and lay their eggs inside the nest. The eggs hatch and develop into larvae that feed on the bumble bee larvae. Other species of velvet ants parasitize certain types of flies and beetles, thus serving as natural control agents. Adult velvet ants feed on nectar.

Velvet ants are not aggressive and will try to escape when confronted. This was the case before I finally trapped a big female under my Mason jar. She was indeed beautiful to look at and much to my surprise emitted a high squeaking sound when I shook the jar. This unusual characteristic of the species and the thrashing whip-like needle of her stinger left an impression that has lasted long beyond my boyhood. (photo by Jason Wilcox)


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