If you’re out hiking this fall, keep an eye out for this fuzzy little red ant. It’s called the “cow killer” ant, and you’ll never guess how it got that name.
This warning comes courtesy of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which recently posted a warning to visitors on its Facebook page. What they showcased was a little red ant that honestly looks pretty cute and fuzzy, like how you’d imagine an ant if it were animated by Dreamworks.
But they call it the cow killer for a reason. The sting of this ant is so powerful it was once thought to kill cows.
It doesn’t. It’s extremely painful, but it’s not bad enough that a cow would keel over and die from it (unless it was already allergic to the venom).
The species is Dasymutilla occidentalis, a type of “velvet ant” so-called because of the velvet-like hairs all across its back. It’s also a bit of a misnomer since the velvet ant isn’t an ant at all and is actually a type of wasp. The females are ground-dwelling and have a powerful stinger, while the males have wings but no stinger.
Velvet ants can typically be spotted in the summer scurrying around looking for nectar or other wasp nests to lay their eggs. The cow killer parasitizes the Eastern cicada killer by laying her eggs on the cicada killer’s larvae which then eat the larvae as they mature. Which is a little weird since the cicada killer parasitizes cicadas in a very similar way.
You might come across these ants around this time of year, but you should definitely stay away. Although not particularly aggressive, velvet ants have an extremely painful sting--one of the worst in the animal kingdom.
We could try to describe the excruciating pain, but it’s better to just see for yourself thanks to Coyote Peterson, a YouTuber who happens to both be a naturalist and a glutton for punishment.
Luckily, velvet ants want nothing to do with you. Just make sure one hasn’t accidentally scurried into your hiking boot before you put your foot inside and don’t try to pick one up.