The female Red Velvet Ant is three-fourths inches long, black body with patches of fine orange-red hair on the body and wingless. It does look similar to an ant, but much bigger, hairy and very fast moving. Also, they have a straight antennae, unlike the ant which has a curved antennae. The male looks similar to the female, but has wings and cannot sting. However, they will pretend to sting you. The female can sting, and like all wasps, will sting you several times leaving you in excruciating pain for up to an hour — hence “Cow Killer.” Unless you have an allergy to wasp stings, you won’t die.
They become active the end of June through early October, preferring temperatures between 70 and 96 degrees, and some will overwinter in the ground in their dormant state. The Red Velvet Ant is a loner and does not nest in a colony such as ants or other bees.
When mating season arrives, the male’s wings are used to seek out its mate by vision as well as pheromones. Both sexes produce the squeaking chirp during the mating process.
Red Velvet Ants can be good insects to have in your yard because they prey on yellow jackets and other ground-nesting bees. Once the female has become fertilized, she will burrow a tunnel in the ground and lay her egg in a bee’s cocoon. If she should come upon a ground-nesting bee or wasp, her exterior hard shell will prevent them from stinging her. When the egg hatches, the red velvet ant larva eats the host. Because the host is in a resting stage, it cannot defend itself.
The Red Velvet Ant is not aggressive, and if approached will make a squeaky chirp to scare off its predators. Since they feed off nectar, you will find them in flower gardens. In the snake world, the saying “red touching black a friend of Jack, red touching yellow kill a fella,” but in this case red touching black is not a friend of Jack. A word of advice: Don’t go barefoot in your garden, and be careful in your yard. Also show your children what they look like and warn them not to pick them up or try to play with them.
I found information about the Red Velvet Ant from the following websites: www.scwildlife.com/pubs/julyaug2009/redvelvetant.html; www.goingtoseedinzone5.wordpress.com/2009/07/12/the-cow-killer-a-k-a-red-velvet-ant/
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website, www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee ; or contact the Cherokee County Extension Office, 1130 Bluffs Parkway, Suite G49, Canton, GA, 30114, 770-721-7803. The Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.