Did you just see a fuzzy red and black ant scurrying across your yard, driveway, or pine straw? Then you just saw a velvet ant – they’re closely related to ants but are actually wasps. There are many species of velvet ants in South Carolina, but the species Dasymutilla occidentalis is probably the most common and most often seen.
Video: Velvet Ants are Fast
Velvet ants are also called “cow killers” because of their powerful sting. That said, no cows have ever been reported as being killed by a velvet ant sting, but it supposedly hurts really bad. Dr. Justin Schmidt, a famous scientist who created the “Schmidt Pain Scale for Stinging Insects,” is known for evaluating different insect stings on a scale of 1 (mild, e.g., a fire ant) to 4 (intense pain, e.g., a tarantula hawk), rates the velvet ant sting as a 3 and describes it as “Explosive and long-lasting, you sound insane as you scream. Hot oil from the deep-frying spilling over your entire hand.” As with most animals, bright colors usually mean “I’m dangerous, leave me alone,” and the velvet ant is no different.
Larvae of the velvet ant are rarely encountered, as they are mostly parasites of ground-nesting bees and wasps. Females lay their eggs on the host, and after the eggs hatch, the velvet ant larva consumes and kills the host.
Velvet ants are rarely a nuisance, as they typically stay outdoors. Please don’t pick them up or step on them with bare feet. If they are in an undesired area, they can be relocated to a more desirable location.
For more information, see HGIC 2485, Velvet Ants.