Thursday, August 2, 2012

Holy Cow...a Cicada Killer Wasp!

We saw our first ever Cicada Killer Wasp this weekend. Rick watched him hanging out by the ash tree and called me over to take a look. When I caught sight of him "Yikes" was the only thing I could say. He was a big wasp. Really big. Almost two-inches-long big. How on earth had we never seen one before...it was huge! The wasp was lapping up sap near the base of our dying ash tree (the same tree from this post) and didn't seem to mind us looking on. We watched it for a while, but then I ran in and got my "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America." It only took a few minutes to identify him--it's not hard to find a wasp that's close to two-inches long...

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)
This looks like an average-sized wasp, but when you consider he was about 30 feet up the tree, and I could still focus in on him, you start to get an idea of his size. He's nice and colorful too...with orange-ish legs and reddish-eyes, not to mention the yellow and black stripes on his abdomen.

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
...but don't get too worried. These gentle wasps are not aggressive. The males have no stingers, and the females really only like to sting Cicadas. They will sting humans, though--but only if they feel threatened or you try to hold them down.
Cicada Killer wasps live up to their name. The females are hunters, and when they find a cicada, they sting it, paralyzing it with venom. They then carry (either flying or walking) the paralyzed cicada to a burrow where they have dug tunnels that end in cells (up to 16 cells per burrow or nest). They drag the cicada to one of the cells and lay a single egg on it. The egg hatches out and the grub-like larvae eats the cicada alive as it grows. (Source, "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America," by Eaton and Kaufman, pg 336.) I spent some time watching two wasps fly around in our tree, but never did witness a cicada take-down.

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
Yellow markings on the black abdomen of a Cicada Killer Wasp.
Cicada Killers like to build their nests in loose soils. The drought has created a few sandy spots on some of our hills in the front yard. We think we know where one of the burrows is. I read the wasps can displace up to a pound of soil while excavating the tunnels and cells, and the holes often look like they could belong to an animal. I'm going to watch for more and hopefully get some better photos.

Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius sp.)--a very large wasp measuring almost 2 inches
The Cicada Killers loved the sap leaking from our ash tree. Adults live on nectar and pollen from flowers...and sap from trees. They don't eat the cicadas, only the grub-like larvae do. 

exoskeleton of the cicada nymph after molting
The exoskeleton of the cicada nymph. I wonder if this cicada survived after molting, or if the Cicada Killer got him!
To learn more about Cicada Killer Wasps, click here for information from the University of Kentucky.

20 comments:

KaHolly said...

WOW! That's fascinating. I don't think I'd like to come face to face with one of those!! Poor cicadas, but that's mother nature! Great post. Thanks for sharing!

Jayne said...

How cool Kelly! What great photos of a not often seen wasp. :c)

rebeccainthewoods said...

Really gorgeous photos! I've never seen a Cicada Killer (or if I did I didn't know what it was) but the size and the predatory behavior remind me of my favorite wasp from out west - the Tarantula Hawk, which is huge, patterned in metallic blue and orange, and kills tarantulas for its young to eat. Crazy!

Janice K said...

It's nice to know the don't prefer humans. I certainly have never seen such a big one!

Roy said...

Not something you would want to meet in the dark Kelly.{:)

Montanagirl said...

Oh my! I have never in my life seen anything like that!! He's huge and flashy. Great shots of him, Kelly.

Gillian Olson said...

Never seen a wasp that big, fascinating, and great pictures. You are braver than me I think I would have headed indoors.

Dan Huber said...

Great shots, I think I have seen one of these before (didn't have an id), but they are scary looking.

holdingmoments said...

That's one BIG wasp!
Great shots of him Kelly.

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

Another great informative post.

Thanks
Guy

Elaine said...

Yikes and double Yikes!! I think I'll just keep my distance....

Randy Emmitt said...

Kelly,
Great finding these in a tree like this! My first encounter with them was when we were building a deck on a big open lawn. Several wasps came in and dug nests over night inside our footers holes ready for inspection. Little did they know their homes would have poured concrete over them the next day.

Mary said...

wow...I don't think I have ever seen one. I went back and read about your ash tree. I'm so sorry! We have an ash, too and I dread the day the borers get here.

Claudia Fugate said...

Great information - I've been seeing these hovering in the grass - glad to know they aren't aggressive. Also good to know there is a predator to the noisy cicada.

mischy said...

Its good to be aware of how cicadas look like. But I never want to encounter one. Anyways, thanks for the useful information. quality pump

Adrienne in Ohio said...

I just saw something fly out of a sandy burrow a couple of weeks ago and wondered what it was. Now I know. There were several of the little mounds of sand that looked like oversized anthills. Now I want to go back and watch for awhile. Great photos!

Betsy Adams said...

Interesting post about the Cicada Killer Wasps, Kelly... AND--those are great photos. Very very interesting.. Thanks!!!!
Hugs,
Betsy

Appalachian Lady said...

Thanks--I will look for this wasp around here. We have so many kinds as well as lots of cicadas.

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone. Lots of people wrote me about their encounters with these gentle giants. So far, no one has been stung......and everyone has be frightened when they first saw the little beasts, but after learning about them, the wasp has moved from "scary" to "cool" in most of their minds!!

Debbie Miller @HooootOwl said...

That is one BIG wasp! I have never seen a bee that big, wow! Wonderful job capturing such an intimidating species of bee, brave girl!