North Carolina

‘Cow killer ant’ packs an excruciating sting, Great Smoky Mountains officials say

This insect has a powerful sting, wildlife officials say.
This insect has a powerful sting, wildlife officials say. Screengrab from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Facebook page

Reddish-colored fuzz makes one tiny creature stand out from surrounding leaves, a photo shows.

But don’t let the size deceive you.

This three-quarter-inch insect packs a powerful sting — so powerful that it’s been dubbed the “cow killer ant,” according to a Facebook post from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

So how much do they hurt?

“The common name, ‘cow killer,’ is thought to describe the painful sting these insects can inflict to man and animals, although it is doubtful that many cows are actually stung,” the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension says on its website.

It actually “isn’t venomous enough to kill a cow, but to a human, it feels as though it could,” The Washington Post reports.

And despite the nickname, the bug isn’t even an ant at all, the park service said Friday.

It’s actually a wasp called Dasymutilla occidentalis, wildlife officials say. Only the females are wingless and have the power to deal the excruciating stings, according to the Great Smoky Mountains post.

A female also looks for “the underground dwellings of other wasps, such as the Eastern Cicada Killer, and will lay her eggs on top of the developing host larvae,” the park says. “The cow killer eggs will soon hatch and feed on the larval cicada killers.”

As adults, both males and females have vibrant striping, possibly leading to another nickname: “velvet ant,” according to the North Carolina State University Extension for entomology.

If you’re hoping to spot the colorful wasps, you may be in luck.

They’re typically found in the summer and are native to “eastern North America,” according to the university extension offices.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

Video uses wax to show what goes on when an ant stings. Adrian Smith of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences says the release of venom has likely never been filmed before.

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