Cicada Killer Wasp

Sphecius speciosus

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image of Cicada Killer on Goldenrod
Donna Brunet
Family

Crabronidae (a wasp family) in the order Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps)

Description

The cicada killer ranks most formidable in appearance of any wasp in the state. It is an exceptionally large species, with rusty clear wings and the black and yellow markings common of wasps. In addition to their size and coloration, their behavior identifies them.

Males often defend territories around the nests of one of more females, and their energetic hovering can be intimidating. Females also cruise around, looking for good places to dig tunnels and searching around trees and shrubs for cicadas. Males, however, are incapable of stinging, and females (unless molested) reserve their stinging for the cicadas they hunt.

Size

Length: can exceed 1½ inches.

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Image of a cicada killer
Cicada Killer

Cicada Killer Wasp with Cicada

A large wasp with reddish head and thorax and a black and yellow striped abdomen drags a dead cicada up a tree.
A wasp drags a cicada up a tree in Centralia, MO
Habitat and conservation

Nest tunnels are dug in open areas such as lawns and pastures, usually in aggregations. Loose, workable soils are preferred. A mound of excavated soil at the tunnel entrance is often conspicuous. These mounds often have a shallow furrow leading to the tunnel entrance, as if made by dragging a thumb. Female cicada killers may live a month and produce tunnels four or more feet long in a single nest. Although nests are not particularly deep, nine or ten cells per nest is not unusual.

Foods

Adult cicada killers feed on nectar and other sweet plant juices. To provide food for the young, female cicada killers hunt dog day cicadas (genus Tibicen), using their stings to paralyze them, then stock their nests with one or two cicadas per cell. Cicada killer larvae feed on the cicadas.

image of Cicada Killer Wasp Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Not harmful to humans. Only the females possess stingers, and they reserve these for use in subduing prey (cicadas). It is possible that a female cicada killer could sting a person, but only if it is handled roughly. Persons allergic to wasp stings should stay away from all wasps. Males can look threatening as they jealously patrol their territories, chasing away other males and even other kinds of insects that flutter into the area. But they lack stings and are harmless.

Life cycle

Males usually emerge before females and begin establishing territories about the same time dog-day cicadas emerge and start singing. Females emerge and dig nest tunnels; then they hunt, sting, and paralyze cicadas, transport them to the nest, drag them inside, and lay an egg on them. The larvae hatch in a few days and start eating the cicadas. Within a month, they finish growing, form a protective cocoon, and overwinter. In spring they pupate for about a month, then emerge as adults.

Human connections

Sometimes the tunneling of this species disfigures lawns; the flip side is that it aerates the soil and helps rainwater to soak in. This species also provides us with drama: A cicada killer gliding with, then dragging, a huge, immobilized cicada to its nest is truly an impressive spectacle.

Ecosystem connections

Although they prey on cicadas, cicada killers are preyed upon by a wasp called the velvet ant. The female velvet ant sneaks into the cicada killer’s tunnel and lays an egg in a nest cell. The cicada killer larva eats its cicada and grows; when it pupates, the velvet ant larva eats the pupa.