A few weeks ago, I was in the yard with my son and nephews playing catch with baseballs. One of the throws went over their head and they took off chasing after it seeing who could get to it first. While running, Nate, the smallest of the three, slid to a stop, turned around, and hollered, “Hey, look at this bug”! By this time the other two were fighting over the baseball and weren’t too interested in the bug that had been found. As I got to “the bugs” location, Nate was squatted down, trying to corral and capture his new discovery. When I saw “the bug”, I quickly scooped up Nate and hollered for the other boys to come over and see what he had found. As they ran up to us I told them not to get so close. What is that, they asked in unison. What Nate had found was a Velvet ant, more commonly known as a cow killer.
The cow killer is the largest of the velvet ants, measuring up to one inch in length. It earned its name by the reputation of the female’s powerful sting that is said to be so painful that it could kill a cow. Cow killers aren’t really ants, but a type of wasp. They differ from ants only by body segments and antennae construction. Cow killers are fairly easy to identify. They have thick fur-like hair and are black with red or orange stripes, long gangly legs, and thick antenna. They are most often found scurrying along the ground in open areas of yards, fields, and pastures. Females are wingless, and males have dark colored wings. Velvet ants are not aggressive and will try to escape and scurry away when encountered. However, females will defend themselves with a long, needle like stinger concealed at the tip of their abdomen if they feel threatened.
Cow killers do not live in colonies or nests like ants or wasp. They are nomadic, and travel from place to place in search of food. They feed on nectar, water, ground bee and ground wasp larvae. Because there is no nest or colony to treat, there is no effective control measures for them, the best advice is to not pick one up or touch it. If you want to get rid of it, use the bottom of your shoe.
“So, can it really kill a cow?” they asked as it scurried away. No, it can’t, I told them; but it feels like getting stung by 10 wasps at the same time so let’s leave it alone. Yeah, they said I don’t want it to sting me – hey, where’s the baseball?
Don’t forget that the Sampson County Extension Service is offering the Sampson County Friends of Horticulture program this year. This program offers monthly “How To” horticultural seminars targeting homeowners and gardeners of Sampson County. Our next session will cover gardening in raised beds on Aug. 17, 6 p.m. at the Sampson Extension Center. Pre-register by calling 910-592-7161. The registration fee is $5 per session, and you only pay for the session that you want to attend.
Brad Hardison is an agricultural extension agent specializing in horticulture. Contact him by calling the Sampson County Extension Center at 910-592-7161 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.