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:
- Yes, these wasps kill cicadas1. it works like this:
- The adult female wasp will paralyze the cicada with her venomous sting.
- The wasp will carry the cicada to a burrow, where it will place the cicada.
- The wasp will lay an egg under the left or right second leg of the cicada.
- The egg hatches, and the larvae begins to eat the cicada, while taking care to keep it alive.
- Once the larvae has had its fill, it spins a cocoon, in which it will change into an adult wasp.
- 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.
- 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.
- Not all Sphecius wasps in the world kill cicadas, but all Sphecius in the New World (the Americas) do 3.
- If you haven’t seen a Cicada Killer Wasp, they are largely black and pale yellow wasps, and are often found carrying a cicada (see image on this page).
- Cicada Killer Wasps are often confused with European Wasps (Vespa crabro). European Wasps are a more vibrant yellow color and feature more yellow than black. They also belong to an entirely different family of wasp: Vespidae.
- 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.
- 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 larvae tucked under your arm. That said, check out the video below of a Sphecius speciosus “mating ball” in Elias Bonaros’ hand:
- Some species of Cicada Killer Wasps show a preference 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 males cicadas make, but this is not the case 1.
- 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.
Bonus fact: Cicada Killer Wasps are also known as Cicada Hawks.
- 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/.
- The ITIS listing for Sphecius Dahlbom, 1843.
- 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.
I love this tweet featuring the cicada collection of song cicada killer wasp:
— Crystal Maier (@DryopoidDarling) August 25, 2014