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February 22, 2015

10 Facts about Cicada Killer Wasps

Filed under: Cicada Killer Wasps,FAQs — Dan @ 8:58 pm

Cicada Killer Wasp on Elias' Finger

Every now and then someone will email me about “a giant bee attacking a cicada”. These are not bees, these are Cicada Killer Wasps. Now is a good time to write about them because Prof. Chuck Holliday is now retired and has shut down his Cicada Killer Wasp website 1.

Here are 10 facts about Cicada Killer Wasps for you to enjoy:

  1. Yes, these wasps kill cicadas1. it works like this:
    1. The adult female wasp will paralyze the cicada with her venomous sting.
    2. The wasp will carry the cicada to a burrow, where it will place the cicada.
    3. The wasp will lay an egg under the left or right second leg of the cicada.
    4. The egg hatches, and the larvae begins to eat the cicada, while taking care to keep it alive.
    5. Once the larvae has had its fill, it spins a cocoon, in which it will change into an adult wasp.
  2. Female wasps are able to predetermine the sex of their larvae.1 They must do this because it takes more females to create new generations of wasps, than it does males.
  3. Cicada Killer Wasps belong to the family Crabronidae Latreille, 1802; the tribe Bembicini Latreille, 1802 and the genus Sphecius Dahlbom, 1843 2. Crabronidae comes from the Latin word for hornet, Bembicini comes from the Greek word for buzzing insect, and Sphecius is from the Greek word for wasp.
  4. Not all Sphecius wasps in the world kill cicadas, but all Sphecius in the New World (the Americas) do 3.
  5. If you haven’t seen a Cicada Killer Wasp, they are large black and pale yellow wasps, and are often found carrying a cicada (see image on this page).
  6. Cicada Killer Wasps are often confused with European Wasps (Vespa crabro). European Wasps are a more vibrant yellow color, and feature more yellow than back. They also belong to an entirely different family of wasp: Vespidae.
  7. There are five species of Cicada Killer Wasps in the Americas 3:
    • Sphecius convallis (Patton, 1879) aka the Pacific Cicada Killer, is found in the U.S.A. and Mexico.
    • Sphecius grandis (Say, 1824), the Western Cicada Killer, is found in the U.S.A. Mexico and parts of Central America.
    • Sphecius hogardii (Latreille, 1809 aka the Caribbean Cicada Killer, is found in Florida and Caribbean countries.
    • Sphecius speciosus (Drury, 1773) aka the Eastern Cicada Killer, is found in Ontario, Canada, the U.S.A. Mexico and parts of Central America.
    • Sphecius spectabilis (Taschenberg, 1875) is found in South America.
  8. I know what you are thinking: are these terrifyingly large wasps a threat to human beings? The short answer is NO. They are so focused on cicadas or other Cicada Killer Wasps, that they could care less about you. Sure, if you step on one, squeeze one in your hand, or otherwise harass the insect, it might sting you. Unlike other wasps, it will not go out of its way to harm you. Play it safe, do not go near these wasps, particularly if you are allergic to stinging insects, or do not wish to be placed in a burrow with a larvae tucked under your arm. That said, check out the video below of a Sphecius speciosus “mating ball” in Elias Bonaros’ hand:
  9. Some species of Cicada Killer Wasps show a preferences for female cicadas (S. hogardii), and some seem to prefer male cicadas (S. grandis), but it is not clear why. You might think that these wasps will take more males than females because of the loud sound the males cicadas make, but this is not the case 1.
  10. Cicada Killer Wasps (S. speciosus) will prey upon Magicicada periodical cicadas 3. There is a bit of a myth that Magicicada are able to avoid these wasps but that is not the case.

References:

  1. The “Biology of cicada killer wasps | Prof. Chuck Holliday's www page at Lafayette College” website which is now archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20150203211426/http://sites.lafayette.edu/hollidac/research/biology-of-cicada-killer-wasps/.
  2. The ITIS listing for Sphecius Dahlbom, 1843.
  3. Holliday, C., Hastings, J., and Coelho, J. 2009. Cicada Prey of New World Cicada Killers, Sphecius Spp. (Dahlbom, 1843) (Hymenoptera: Crabronidae). Entomological News. 120:1-17.

Bonus:

I love this tweet featuring the cicada collection of song cicada killer wasp:

14 Comments »

  1. Jewel says:

    I have seen these kill horseflies and houseflies – horse people find these extremely beneficial and they do not sting people which is even better,

  2. JoAnn says:

    Very interesting about the cicada killer wasps. The cicada here in our area must be so lucky because I’ve never seen or heard of the wasps in our area. We will get an occasional cicada each year, but the big swarms come out from underground every 17 years. It is pretty loud for the several weeks they are here. They leave holes in the yard where they first burrowed out from, seem to kill the tips of tree branches, then mate, lay eggs that somehow get underground till the next 17 year cycle.

  3. Kat says:

    I have seen a couple of these in my back yard. Should I worry for my dog? He usually avoids buzzing things and I watch him while he is out there, but I am a worry wart of a dog mom.

  4. Dona says:

    What does these Cicada Killer Wasp live off of when there aren’t any Cucada’s?

    1. Dan says:

      They use the cicadas to feed their larvae. They might not feed at all. Some adult insects use their fat stores that they gained as larvae, which give them just enough energy to mate and spawn.

      I read this today about controlling them: “This can be done by eliminating or reducing the breeding area which usually consists of exposed, sandy soil. This area can be mulched or covered with grass. ” from http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/beneficial/cicada_killers.htm#management

  5. Jo says:

    How do I chase them out of my yard? I have had these wasps every May through August and they make going outside impossible!

    1. Dan says:

      I wish I knew for your sake.

      You must have a lot of cicadas in your yard as well.

      1. Jo says:

        Hundreds! They happily buzz loudly all over and they scare people. I can mow right through the swarm with no problem, but the are creepy! I don’t want them dead, I just don’t want them hovering! It’s a constant swarm!

        1. Dan says:

          100’s wow! I’m intrigued.

          1. Jo says:

            I’ll send you a video if you tell me how. They love circling my dog.

          2. Dan says:

            Upload it to youtube and send the link to cicadamania@gmail.com

    2. Tamara Giacomozzi says:

      We had them living under our lilac tree 2 years ago. Scared the crap out of me! Swarming like crazy we couldn’t even use our walkway. I called a great exterminator and he treated 2ce and no more problem. Apparently you have to spray right into their burrows when they aren’t awake of course.

  6. Rene says:

    Will there be any hatching in Jefferson County NY near Lake Ontario?

    1. Dan says:

      Jefferson County NY. Just in Long Island.

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