Creature Feature: Cicada Killers

Not a murder hornet

Ah the soothing sounds of summer, the Nighthawk’s peent call and the buzzing of the cicadas. It is the latter sound that brings a fearsome looking creature to sandy and dry spots of your lawn or flower pots on your porch in late July and into August. It is large, 1.5 to 2 inches in length, large wings, and is curious (territorial) about your presence near their tunnels. But never fear, dear reader, these are Cicada Killers, and if that sounds ominous, unless you are a Cicada you are not in any danger!

These large native species of solitary digger wasps are in the family Crabronidae. They look like giant hornets or huge yellow-jackets but these wasps are not aggressive and as such is not likely to sting unless directly handled (yeah, like that’s gonna happen!). To identify look for a dull brown head, with a small yellow patch on the face. The thorax is dull brown to orange and there are three broken bands of yellow on its black abdomen.

The males have no stingers (whew!) and emerge first to establish territory and to joust with other males. When the females emerge (they have the stingers, more on that later) they will begin to dig tunnels. The tunnels are “nurseries” for their young. These wasps are not social insects, like honey bees, so several might share a good nesting site, but each female has her own tunnels.

Females locate a cicada, sting it to cause paralysis (that’s the reason she has a stinger), brings it back to her tunnels, either by flying, or coasting down from the tree as the cicada is bigger than she. The cicada will then be dragged and stuffed into the tunnel, with perhaps one or two more. She will then lay an egg under the left or right second leg of the cicada and seal the tunnel. The egg will hatch in a few days, and the developing larva will consume the cicada as it grows during the next two weeks. Once the larva is full grown, it spins a silken cocoon in which it will remain until the following summer. It will then exit the cocoon, enter the pupal stage and then emerge as an adult. When once again the fearful will shout, “Murder Hornet!”

Watch for this fascinating and wonderful creature but play it safe, especially if you are allergic to stinging insects. Try not to step on one, squeeze one in your hand, or harass the insect, as it might sting you. Just a note it will not go out of its way to harm you, (leave it alone) they are just participating in the circle of life.