Monday, July 20, 2009

Cicada Killer, Qu'est Que C'est?

Cicada Killer paralyzes a Cicada before dragging it into its burrow (under a sidewalk)
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With the continuous, wide-spread alarm (but little action) over the peril of bees and other pollinators, there's another group of insects who are doing just fine - predatory wasps and hornets. One such guy, our largest wasp, has been wreaking havoc all over Maryland this summer. She's the Eastern Cicada Killer (Specius speciosus), she's 2" long, and she does not enjoy long walks on the beach, unless she is carrying a paralyzed (but very alive) cicada. This year's cicadas are all Dogday Cicadas (Tibicen canicularis), and let me tell you, they are taking a beating! In case you haven't seen either species alive - both of these insects are over 2" long.


Uh oh, the cicada won't fit!
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The cicada killer is a solitary nester, but ideal nesting conditions may create a seeming "colony" of these giant wasps (which do sting!). Like many evolved predator-prey relationships, the Cicada Killer mates at the same time of the summer when Cicada nymphs are transforming into flying adults. The female Cicada Killer does all the hunting. When a cicada is located, the wasp stings it to paralyze it, and then carries it (flying) back to its nest. The cicada is never killed, but instead is kept as a living host for the eggs of the Cicada Killer. The Cicada Killer places male and female eggs at different locations along the cicada's body (favoring female eggs). The eggs hatch and eat away at the living Cicada, which is periodically paralyzed by additional stings from the adult female Cicada Killer.


There it goes! Yum!
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Ironically enough, Cicada Killers are also the hosts to a number of species of parasitic flies, who lay eggs on the wasp's body and wait for the maggots to tear into the Cicada Killer.
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I looked at a couple of websites for instructions on "managing" Cicada Killers (since they are generally considered a beneficial species), and found some great tips on (generally) providing habitat for ground-nesting bees and wasps, particularly by leaving slopes of sandy soil exposed. Of course, this would also include yellowjackets....but we'll leave all of that for another post.

Post-script: that post can be found here.


14 comments:

tugboatdude said...

interesting that it keeps it alive as a ost for the eggs.nice pics by the way

{nUtTyPrOfFeSsOr} said...

um...I hate wasps n hornets n such stinging things. But do enjoy the abilities of an insect to lay eggs in a living creature (and carry it back to it's nest!) then continue to sting it to keep it paralyzed so the eggs can hatch and eat it, alive.

Nature is sawsum.

BC Planning said...

This is the most disturbing and gangsta tadbit I have ever read about bugs. The fact that there is a cicada bug killer sounds cool until I kept reading that it is a 2" wasp.

Kathryn said...

I just came in from walking the dog, after a much-needed thunderstorm. There were Cicada Killers gathered in one stretch of sidewalk, all engrossed in their own business. I stopped and watched, but could not discern what the activity was all about. Perhaps their dens were flooded. Most were a bit under two inches, but there was one whopper of a wasp that I figured must get her way most of the time. Got on the web to see what might be going on, and found your blog. Very cool, and I applaud your writing skills, as well as your attention to detail.

I always considered the huge yellow hornets to be the Cicada Killers, but here I found something new!
Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I thought it was very interesting! We have cicada killers in our backward. We did not notice them for quite some time until now they never became a threat until now so i was wondering what they do and how much it hurts but this link has helped me quite a bit!

Anonymous said...

Dave Woodward here. I live in Waterford Michigan. We just found over 25 of these inground nests. I was able to watch one of these bees carrying a cicada, land and start to drag it into its nest. It took a direct blast from my wasp spray, still flew up 30' and over 30' before droping. I have it saved in a zip-lock. A1 Exterminating guy says he's only seen three of these in Mich. I'm lucky arn't I?

River Mud said...

Dave, speaking in VAST generalities here, yeah, the larger insects generally self-select towards warmer climates.

I couldn't find a quick reference on how far north they really go, but another blogger mentioned them in a post about Chicago...

It's our biggest wasp, and a treat to have around....as long as you (or your kids) don't try to catch it with your bare hands. This is the third year we've had them, and they will literally fly around you to get to where they're going. Not interested in people AT ALL.

Anonymous said...

I live in the northeast corner of MD, by the PA and DE line. For the past fwe years, I've spotted gargantuan stinging insects of some kind (always assumed hornet) that look a bit like the Cicada killer I just read about on your blog, but on steroids. They have more stripes on the lower body and the upper body is reddish-brown (perhaps somewhat furry) We have a small slope in the front yard leading to our driveway next to our sidewalk. They live either under the rocks we placed there, or in the slope and vegitation itself (I'm not brave enough to find out which). They are at least 2" long, but VERY beefy - it doesn't look like there is any separation at all between the body parts, though I know there is. They kind of remind me of a bullet. They are not agressive at all (though I do a good job of avoiding them) but I have three small children, 4.5, 3 and 16 months, and worry they won't be as cautious as I am. Any idea what they might be???

River Mud said...

Try bugguide.net (click on the bee or wasp) and try to work through the photos.

If they are truly gigantic and striped, it's probably a European hornet, which is nothing to trifle with. We grew up with them in VA.

Look at my blog post from 8-22-11, near the bottom. One got into my fishing tackle box. See if that's your hornet!

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I think the European Hornet is our bug, except that it seems like they build a nest and as far as I can tell, they are living in the dirt. My husband says he thinks is a Cicada Killer after all. (He did volunteer to try and get a photo) If it is a European Hornet, should I get them exterminated?

River Mud said...

You can give it a try, but like all insects, they are only there because the conditions are right. If the conditions (stump, sand pile, or whatever) aren't changed, they will return occasionally. Hopefully not every year!

Anonymous said...

I live Iowa and there all over my house and i am sacred to be sting by one because there's lots.

Anonymous said...

My dad & I live near the Twin Cities and one of these found its way to our patio. Fly swatter in hand, it took several strikes to keep it on the ground. Biggest dang bug I've ever seen! But there is one bigger flying around. I was going to take it to the Biological institute near here till my neighbor told me what it was.

Anonymous said...

I hate these wasps. They are very aggressive and territorial. They dig up the dirt around my edging leaving a mess too. They can go nest somewhere else.