The cow killer is a wasp that resembles an ant. It's often referred to as the red velvet ant in recognition of the beautiful and soft hair on its body. Aside from red, the velvet ant or cow killer can feature orange-, yellow- or brown-colored hair overlaying a black body.
Males vs. Females
Male cow killer wasps have wings and can fly. The females do not have wings and, thus, cannot fly. As is true for other species of wasps, as well as bees and stinging ants, the female cow killers have a stinger on the back end of their abdomen from which they lay eggs. As males do not have an egg-laying mechanism, they also cannot sting.
The name "cow killer" is perhaps an exaggerated misnomer. While the sting from this female wasp is extremely painful, it alone is not enough to kill a cow. Stories from the Old West feature the scenario of a cow being stung by a female wasp when the bovine stepped on its nest. The cow is then unable to stand the pain in the tender areas of her foot, so she begins to run uncontrollably and breaks her leg in the process. Other ranch stories include the stings from a cow killer becoming infected with maggots, leading to the death of the cow. People unlucky enough to have been stung by a cow killer can testify the pain feels intense enough to "kill a cow." The name -- and the legend -- apparently stuck.
Cow killer wasps are found in fields, meadows, the edges of forests and sandy areas bordering these areas. In the United States, they're common in the Midwest, ranging from South Dakota in the north to Texas in the south. Their territory also extends across the Gulf states to Florida and along the Atlantic coast up to to Connecticut and Massachusetts. They prefer a solitary existence rather than the colony lifestyle of ants. So if you do step on one, chances are slim that another is nearby to follow-up with more stinging.
Dangerous to Other Wasps
The fictitious reputation the cow killer wasp has for causing the death of bovines is reality in its relationship with other wasps. As part of its reproductive process, the cow killer lays eggs on the larvae of the cicada killer wasp. It's a strategic spot for the larvae of cow killer wasps. When the cow killers hatch, there's a ready food source in the form of the larvae of the cicada killer wasp that is yet to hatch. The cow killer has an excellent feast unless a parent cicada killer is around; the cicada killer is able to inject a paralyzing venom.
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.