You don’t have to go to the Amazon jungle to find strange and bizarre creatures. They might be living in your own backyard. The state of Georgia has an abundance of giant bugs, creepy bugs, nasty bugs and cool bugs. This particular bug was all of the above.
At first I thought it was an Amazonian ant colony swarming over the driveway in search of new nesting grounds. But these weren’t like any ants I’d ever seen. They were huge and brightly colored like something you’d find in the Amazon rainforests. Almost an inch long with bright red stripes and fuzzy like a bumblebee, they were scurrying toward my favorite garden bed up near the front door. Bright red is a scary color when it comes to bugs. Red usually means painful stings or bites. And these scary gigantic ants were looking to make a home where I’m always sticking my fingers. Chills ran down my spine at the thought of pulling weeds next to a nest of these bad boys.
I caught one in a jar and brought it into the house. It did strange things in the jar, scary things. It stretched its body longer and several stripes appeared. This picture shows one about halfway stretched out. You can see that the end is now pointy instead of rounded, and there are extra stripes. Mine was quite agitated and its backend was arching. Was it attempting to sting the jar? Surely it couldn’t chew through the plastic? Termites and carpenter ants can chew through wood. God only knew what this Amazonian bug could do.
Google is an amazing search engine. I typed “fuzzy black and red ant” into its magical box and sure enough my giant Amazonian ant appeared. The facts were scarier than the imagination.
Its common name was fitting: Red Velvet Ant. But what filled me with dread was its other common name: Cow Killer. That didn’t sound good. Cow Killer. And we had a whole swarm of them attempting to nest!
My bug turned out to be Dasymutilla occidentalis, or Cow Killer Wasp. It wasn’t an ant at all! The females are wingless and covered with thick hair. Males have wings and cannot sting. The sting of the female is reputed to be so painful that it could kill a cow. Like any good wasp, the Cow Killer Wasp could sting multiple times and is said to be a ferocious fighter when provoked. The outer shell is hard enough to repel the stings of many other bees and wasps, a good trait to have when your food source is the offspring of other bees.
Female Cow Killers crawl around the ground looking for the holes of other bugs such as ground-nesting bees. They crawl down into the nest, find a bee cocoon, eat a hole in the cocoon, deposit an egg, and when it hatches it feeds on the bee larva. Cow Killers are born as white, legless grubs and go through many stages before metamorphing into fuzzy Red Velvet Ants.
Apparently they are found from Connecticut to Florida, then west to Missouri and Texas. In all my years and all my travels I had never seen anything quite like it before. The Cow Killer Wasp is known to squeak, chirp or hum when handled, not that I could imagine anyone brave enough to handle one. In a forum post someone claimed they’d heard one scream when they poked it with a stick. Just the thing you’d want to do, poke at a wasp with a sting so painful it could kill a cow.
Treatment for a Cow Killer Wasp sting is the same as for any other bee sting. Clean and disinfect it, remove the stinger, and use ice packs and pain killers as necessary. Watch for signs of an allergic reaction and go to emergency if you have difficulty breathing or develop a rash. Contrary to its name, one sting from this wasp cannot kill a cow.
Big red and black cow killers are featured in the book “Over the Hummingbird’s Rainbow: An Acre of America Backyard Nature Series” which is an expanded version of the Out Loud nature blog with photos and stories.
Category: Wild Kingdom