Cicada killer wasps strike fear into the hearts of cicadas. These master assassins, boasting an imposing size and unmatched hunting skills can take down a cicada in just one sting. But what lies beneath their powerful sting? Join us on a journey as we unravel the facts about these cicada killers.
1. They’re often mistaken for other wasps and hornets
Cicada killer wasps, commonly referred to as “cicada hawks,” belong to the Crabronidae family and encompass around 22 distinct species. Among them, the Eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus Drury) stands out as a prominent representative.
The appearance of the cicada killer wasp is similar to that of other hornets or wasps. Its body is primarily dark brown or black, adorned with yellow markings or stripes. What distinguishes them from other hornets is the slightly brownish hue of their wings. The vivid hues of their wings and bodies act as a deterrent for predators.
Because of their similar appearance, people often confuse them with European hornets (Vespa crabro). Nevertheless, there are distinct contrasts between these two species. The yellow color of the European hornets is more vivid and takes a greater proportion than the black color. Additionally, they belong to a separate wasp family known as Vespidae.
On the other hand, Western cicada killer wasps are mistaken for hornets, although they have distinct differences, particularly in size. Unlike hornets, cicada killers can grow to be about 1.5 to 2 inches long, which is roughly 7.15 times larger than a house fly. Their impressive size adds to their intimidating appearance.
2. Cicada killer wasp Habitat
Cicada killers are predominantly distributed across the US, from the east to the Central to the west, along with Mexico and neighboring areas. In the midwestern of North America, the western cicada killer species (Sphecius grandis) can be found, and they also establish burrows in the Caribbean, Florida, and certain parts of the country. The eastern cicada wasps can be found in Texas, Illinois, Iowa, etc
These wasps are capable of living in diverse habitats. They just need ample sunlight and proper drainage, light soils to survive. While they typically prefer locations with nearby trees like forests, lawns, pastures, and parks, they can also make nests in sandy or clay-like soils. You can find cicada killer wasp nests in flower beds, gardens, and other suitable areas like under playground equipment or near concrete.
The presence of these creatures is frequently linked to the high population of cicadas in a specific region.
3. They feed on cicadas
Cicada killers, as their name suggests, primarily consume cicadas. However, it’s important to note that not all cicada wasps engage in this diet. Specifically, it is the larvae that rely on cicadas as their food source. Adult cicada eaters predominantly sustain themselves by feeding on nectar derived from flowers and other plant-based fluids. By moving from flowers to flowers, they are doing a great pollinating job. They reserve their hunting activities for capturing cicadas solely to provide nourishment for their offspring.
In the summertime, after mating, the female cicada killers fly through the air in pursuit of their clumsy prey. Once a female captures a cicada, she employs her slender and razor-sharp stinger to puncture the sturdy exoskeleton of the insect and inject a venom that causes them immobile. The job is far from complete for the wasp, as she still needs to transport the larger and heavier cicada back to her burrow. These burrows can reach lengths of up to 70 inches.
After entering her burrow, she constructs a unique chamber and carefully deposits a solitary egg onto the immobilized cicada before sealing the entrance shut. Approximately two to three days later, the egg hatches, the larvae start to eat the cicada, which remains alive throughout the time. This feeding ritual persists for a period of one to two weeks.
When an egg is meant to develop into a female cicada killer, the mother wasp supplies two or three prey for the larvae. Interestingly, the larvae don’t eat the cicada’s nervous system right away, but save it for the end, ensuring the prey remains alive for as long as possible.
Cicada killers face a range of predators, including humans, small mammals, and birds.
Contrary to social wasps or bees, cicada killer wasps are solitary creatures that live in the nest underground. That’s why they do not fiercely defend their nests against enemies. Females even share their burrows or nests in the ground with other females. This strategy enables them to optimize the utilization of resources and potentially enhance their reproductive achievements.
The cicada wasps are diurnal, they are most active during the day. At night, they stay in their burrows.
The males of the species are quite aggressive and territorial towards other males. Yet, they are actually unable to sting. Conversely, the females can and their sting can effectively immobilize other wasps.
With a big size and vibrant color, these killer wasps may seem fearsome. However, they pose little harm to humans. However, if they are disturbed or feel threatened, they may attack and sting you to defend themselves. Their sting is similar to the sensation of a harmless pinprick with a sting pain index of about 1.5. It won’t cause any notable risk or threat to your health.
In addition, these creatures can become bothersome when they encroach upon areas close to or within buildings. The excavation of their burrows has the potential to inflict harm and result in property damage.
5. Life cycle
During the summer season, male cicada killer wasps emerge from beneath the ground to establish their mating territory. The male entices a female to join him in his designated area, where they engage in mating. He can mate with multiple partners.
Following mating, the female cicada hunter digs a nest in the ground, which includes a primary tunnel and around 4 to 5 nursery cells. In certain instances, additional tunnels are created, enabling the female to raise as many as 16 larvae within a solitary burrow. The entrances to their tunnels typically feature a noticeable U-shaped arrangement of loosely packed soil surrounding them.
Within the nest, she lays her eggs on immobilized cicadas she has captured. The female keeps hunting cicadas until she has amassed a sufficient number of cicada prey to accommodate all her eggs. She can only produce one generation before dying.
After the eggs hatch, the juvenile larvae nourish themselves with the immobilized cicada. Once they get enough food, the young construct cocoons and enter a state of hibernation throughout the winter. When the spring comes, the larvae go through metamorphosis and become adults. These adult cicadas eat wasps, mate, burrow, hunt cicadas, lay eggs, and complete their cycle by mid-September.
The lifespan of male cicada killer wasps is about 2 weeks. During this time, they patrol, forage, mate, and then die. On the other hand, the females live longer, about 5 weeks of foraging, hunting, burrowing, and laying eggs.