While female velvet ants might appear to be a black or brown colored, wingless, fur-covered strange species of ant with a striking red, yellow, or orange ring or marking that makes them stand out, they are in fact a type of wasp belonging to the Mutillidae family. Don’t let their relatively small size of one-half to one inch fool you into thinking they are harmless and you can just squish them under your shoe like you might do to most ants that you stumble upon. Those little females pack a pretty painful punch to those that accidentally step on or come in contact with them as they wander around outside in dry, open, and sandy areas looking for a host and its ground nest in which to lay and care for their eggs. One species of velvet ant is even referred to as “cow-killers” because of the excruciating sting the females inflict. This is one insect you want to watch out for.
Velvet ants can be found in urban as well as rural habitats throughout Texas during the warm summer months. While the males, which look more like normal wasps, have wings that allow them to fly away from predators, the females are wingless, and so have their killer sting that they use to defend themselves and their brood. The velvet ant is a parasitic insect, using other bees and wasps and their ground nests to lay their eggs inside. Once the eggs hatch, they consume their poor host and use their nest for shelter during winter, during which they develop into adult velvet ants.
Because the females spend most of their time searching for suitable hosts and their ground nests in open, sandy areas, people mostly get stung while they are walking around barefoot in infested areas. Luckily, these are solitary creatures, so getting stung more than once is unlikely, but that sting is much more painful than your average bee or wasp sting. Entomologist Justin Schmidt from the Southwest Biological Institute in Tucson, Arizona, creator of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the painfulness of insect stings on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the most painful and 1 being the least, rates the sting of a velvet ant as being between a 2 and a 3 on the scale. He claims the pain can last anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes, and cause excruciating pain that comes with an intense burning sensation. Let’s just say you do not want to walk around barefoot outside this summer.
Have you ever seen and been stung by a velvet ant? How painful was the experience?