A Thistledown Velvet Ant

A Thistledown Velvet Ant, also known as a Cow Killer, is seen in the Mojave Desert, California. This unusual insect is not really an ant, but a female wasp. Photographer Robert Jensen

The female wasp (about 2cm long) has no wings, whereas the male wasp, is much smaller than the female one and has wings. Both their sting can be quite painful.



Chris, the son of photographer Robert Jensen, found the unusual insect wandering around in the desert.

Velvet ants are not ants at all but rather solitary female wasps.  These ants parasitize bee and wasp nests.  The females are quite large (up to 1/2 inch) ,wingless, very hairy and colored bright orange or red with black in between. Thistledown Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla gloriosa), has a cream colored coat with long strands of hair dispersed throughout.

The sting from one of these wasps is one of the most painful of any insect.  Some sting so painfully that they are referred to as “cow killers.”  The wingless females (males are winged and rarely seen) can make a squeaking (screaming!) noise when captured. Males of this species are winged and usually larger than the females.