Cicada Killers!

Last year was my first encounter with these very large flying insects!  They’re a bit menacing and loud – like a B-52 bomber.  They were digging tunnels in my garden squares and I saw them flying with very large prey.

They’re called Cicada Killers and this year I have a bunch of them in the garden- flying and buzzing and dive bombing.  Only they’re not after me.  These male Cicada Killers are extremely territorial and they chase off anything that comes into their area, especially another Cicada Killer unless, of course, it’s a female ready to mate!  They remind me of humming birds the way they chase off one another 🙂

They seem to like my squares that have the squash in them.  So I have a question – will these males keep away the Squash Vine Borer also??!  I’m hoping so…

They’re rather fascinating and I don’t mind  having them in the garden, although for those who don’t like flying insects, they’re a bit unnerving.

Here’s the general information:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Eastern Cicada Killer
Adult male (left) and female
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Subphylum: Hexapoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Suborder: Apocrita
Superfamily: Apoidea
Family: Crabronidae
Subfamily: Bembicinae
Tribe: Gorytini
Genus: Sphecius
Species: S. speciosus
Binomial name
Sphecius speciosus
(Drury, 1773)

Cicada killer wasps are large, solitary wasps in the family Crabronidae. The name may be applied to any species of Crabronid which uses cicadas as prey, though in North America it is typically applied to a single speciesSphecius speciosus, often simply referred to as “The cicada killer”. However, since there are multiple species of related wasps, it is more appropriate to call it the Eastern cicada killer. This species occurs in the eastern and midwest U.S. and southwards into Mexico and Central America. They are so named because they hunt cicadas and provision their nests with them. In North America they are sometimes called sand hornets, although they are not hornets, which belong to the family Vespidae.

Description

Five female Eastern Cicada Killers,Sphecius speciosus (Orangedale, Florida, USA).

Adult Eastern cicada killer wasps are large, 1.5 to 5 cm (2/3 to 2 inches) long, robust wasps with hairy, reddish and black areas on the thorax (middle part), and are black to reddish brown marked with light yellow stripes on the abdominal (rear) segments. The wings are brownish. Coloration may superficially resemble that of yellowjackets orhornets. The females are somewhat larger than the males, and both are among the largest wasps seen in the Eastern United States, their unusual size giving them a uniquely fearsome appearance. European hornets (Vespa crabro) are often mistaken for Eastern cicada killers.

Life cycle and habits

A female Sphecius speciosus digging a burrow next to a driveway (Pennsylvania, USA).

This female cicada killer tired while carrying her cicada in flight and landed short of her burrow. She accepted a “lift”, walked up the observer’s arm carrying her cicada and flew off again. (Pennsylvania, USA).

Solitary wasps (such as the Eastern cicada killer) are very different in their behavior from the social wasps such as hornets,yellowjackets, and paper wasps. Cicada killer females use their sting to paralyze their prey (cicadas) rather than to defend their nests. Adults feed on flower nectar and other plant sap exudates. Adults emerge in summer, typically beginning around late June or early July and continuing throughout the summer months. They are present in a given area for 60 to 75 days, until mid-September. The large females are commonly seen in mid-to-late summer skimming around lawns seeking good sites to dig burrows and searching shrubs and trees for cicadas.

The males are more often seen in groups, vigorously challenging one another for position on the breeding aggregation from which they emerged, and generally pursuing anything that moves or flies within close proximity. It is not unusual to see two or three male wasps locked together in midair combat, the aggregate adopting an erratic and uncontrolled flight path until one of the wasps breaks away. The male wasp’s aggressive behavior is extremely similar to that of another robust insect of the area, the male carpenter bee. In both cases, while the males’ vigorous territorial defense can be extremely frightening and intimidating to human passersby, the males pose no danger whatsoever. They will only grapple with other insects, and cannot sting.

This ground-burrowing wasp may be found in well-drained, sandy soils to loose clay in bare or grass-covered banks, berms and hills as well as next to raised sidewalks, driveways and patio slabs. Females may share a burrow, digging their own nest cells off the main tunnel. A burrow is 15 to 25 cm (6 – 10 in.) deep and about 3 cm (1.5 in.) wide. The female dislodges the soil with her jaws and pushes loose soil behind her as she backs out of the burrow using her hind legs, which are equipped with special spines that help her push the dirt behind her. The excess soil pushed out of the burrow forms a mound with a trench through it at the burrow entrance. Cicada killers may nest in planters, window boxes, flower beds or under shrubs, ground cover, etc. Nests often are made in the full sun where vegetation is sparse.

After digging a nest chamber in the burrow, female cicada killers capture cicadas, paralyzing them with a sting; the cicadas then serve as food to rear their young. After paralyzing a cicada, the female wasp straddles it and takes off toward her burrow; this return flight to the burrow is difficult for the wasp because the cicada is often more than twice her weight. After putting the cicada in the nest cell, the female deposits an egg on the cicada and closes the cell with dirt. Male eggs are laid on a single cicada but female eggs are given two or sometimes three cicadas; this is because the female wasp is twice as large as the male and must have more food. New nest cells are dug as necessary off the main burrow tunnel and a single burrow may eventually have 10 to 20 cells. The egg hatches in one or two days, and the cicadas serve as food for the grub. The larvae complete their development in about 2 weeks. Overwintering occurs as a mature larva within an earth-coated cocoon. Pupation occurs in the nest cell in the spring and lasts 25 to 30 days. There is only one generation per year and no adults overwinter.

This wasp is frequently attacked by the parasiticvelvet ant” wasp, Dasymutilla occidentalis, also known as the “cow-killer” wasp. It lays an egg in the nest cell of the cicada killer, and when the cicada killer larva pupates, the parasitoid larva consumes the pupa.

Interaction with humans

A male Eastern Cicada Killer guarding its territory and looking for females with which to mate.

Although cicada killers are large, female cicada killer wasps are not aggressive and rarely sting unless they are grasped roughly, stepped upon with bare feet, or caught in clothing, etc. One author who has been stung indicates that, for him, the stings are not much more than a “pinprick”[2]. Males aggressively defend their perching areas on nesting sites against rival males but they have no sting. Although they appear to attack anything which moves near their territories, male cicada killers are actually investigating anything which might be a female cicada killer ready to mate. Such close inspection appears to many people to be an attack, but male and female cicada killers don’t land on people and attempt to sting. If handled roughly females will sting, and males will jab with a sharp spine on the tip of their abdomen. Both sexes are well equipped to bite, as they have large jaws; however, they don’t appear to grasp human skin and bite. They are non-aggressive towards humans and usually fly away when swatted at, instead of attacking. Cicada killers exert a natural control on cicada populations and thus may directly benefit the deciduous trees upon which their cicada prey feed.

Being bumped by a male feels like a pinprick, being stung by a female feels like a hot nail being driven into your flesh for hours, leaves bruising and burning for days.

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One Response to “Cicada Killers!”

  1. Lydia Rose Says:

    We just saw a female the other day. It was trapped in our screened in porch and I got some good pictures. I had never seen one or heard of them before then and now you have a posting about it. Wow! You copied the same site that we identified ours from, too.

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