Have you ever seen a large furry-looking orange and black ant? If your answer is “yes,” then you have seen a velvet ant. You may be wondering why this furry bug is also called a cow killer. The truth is that this fuzzy ant is not an ant at all – it’s a wasp! And like nearly all wasps, they sting and can sting multiple times. Folks with the unfortunate luck to have been stung by one have described the intensely painful sting as so excruciating it could “kill a cow,” thus earning it the nickname “cow killer.”
How did this case of mistaken identity get started? You would think telling the difference between an ant and a wasp would be simple. Identifying bugs is not always as easy as you might expect. Different types of insects can have dozens to thousands of different species. Wasps are one that has thousands of species and some look very different from each other or even mimic other types of bugs altogether. In the case of the velvet ant, the females are wingless ground dwellers with a strong resemblance to ants. The males are typically brown or black and do have wings, flying over large territories in search of females. Only the females of this wasp species can sting.
The velvet ant is found all over the world, including throughout much of South Carolina. Unlike true ants, the velvet ant doesn’t create colonies and prefers to travel solo. They particularly like open fields and pastures with sandy soils and are most prevalent in this area from mid to late June through the end of September or early October. Scientists have yet to identify a natural predator for the velvet ant so these deceptively “cute and furry” bugs will continue to thrive. Thankfully, if you leave them alone, they leave you alone – only becoming aggressive if handled. Should you see one of these ladies, keep their nickname in mind and leave them be. Admire from afar (very far), or better yet, walk away in the opposite direction.