Stephen Schau, 8, found an usual insect last month in the backyard of his home in the Germania section of Galloway Township.

Only later would he find out it was a cow killer, so he approached it with his usual fearlessness.

"We have a little beach near the pool. I was just playing with my dog there and found it on the sand," Schau said. "It was alive, crawling on the sand."

He saw that it had a long stinger, so instead of touching it, he went and told his mom that he had found "a bee or wasp. I didn't know what it was."

After looking at the cow killer, his mom, Stephanie Gross, 38, got a small plastic container for Stephen to put it in.

"He's not usually scared of anything like that, but I am," she said.

They examined the insect in the container a couple of times and looked it up online, identifying it as a cow killer.

"We both looked at each other and thought, 'Oh, my God,'" Gross said.

A cow killer's sting is so painful that folklore says it could kill a cow.

An inch long with orange (or red) and black stripes, the cow killer is a member of the velvet ant family - which is another misleading name, since it and the rest of the family are actually wasps.

The confusion is understandable, since velvet ants are shaped like very large, hairy ants and the females are wingless.

Schau's approach to the cow killer was based on a couple of previous stings by yellow jackets, which did not bother him.

"It didn't hurt much because I was playing soccer and the whole stinger came out in my leg and I just wiped it off," he said. "I hardly knew it."

Had the cow killer stung him, experts agree, he would have found it very painful.

"Every time I go out to the beach now, I'm always looking everywhere I step," Gross said. "My boyfriend's allergic to bee stings, and I don't know what this would do to him."

Oddly enough, the pain and toxicity of sting venoms are separate matters. The cow killer's sting has low toxicity, while the honeybee and its mild sting are moderately toxic and the harvester ant's venom is highly toxic.

Cow killers and other velvet ants are common in the South and Southwest. They prey on ground-nesting bees and wasps, such as yellow jackets. They even give the notorious giant cicada killer a taste of its own gruesome parasitism.

Cicada killers - inch-and-a-half-long wasps - sting cicadas, plant eggs in them and bury them in the sand, where the eggs hatch and feed on the paralyzed cicada.

The cicada killer larva then forms a cocoon to pupate, but the cow killer finds this and lays its own egg on the cocoon. The cow-killer larva hatches and eats the cicada killer, then pupates in the cocoon of its victim.

Stephen Schau said he pays more attention to where he steps in his backyard now.

"But I'm still not afraid," he said. "I don't know why."

Contact Kevin Post:

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