Cicada killer wasps are large, solitary wasps in the family Crabronidae. The name may be applied to any species of Crabronid which uses cicadas as prey, though in North America it is typically applied to a single species, Sphecius speciosus, often simply referred to as "The cicada killer". However, since there are multiple species of related wasps, it is more appropriate to call it the Eastern cicada killer. This species occurs in the eastern and midwest U.S. and southwards into Mexico and Central America. They are so named because they hunt cicadas and provision their nests with them. In North America they are sometimes called sand hornets, although they are not hornets, which belong to the family Vespidae.
Solitary wasps (such as the Eastern cicada killer) are very different in their behavior from the social wasps such as hornets, yellowjackets, and paper wasps. Cicada killer females use their sting to paralyze their prey (cicadas) rather than to defend their nests. Adults feed on flower nectar and other plant sap exudates.
Adults emerge in summer, typically beginning around late June or early July and continuing throughout the summer months. They are present in a given area for 60 to 75 days, until mid-September. The large females are commonly seen in mid-to-late summer skimming around lawns seeking good sites to dig burrows and searching shrubs and trees for cicadas.
The males are more often seen in groups, vigorously challenging one another for position on the breeding aggregation from which they emerged, and generally pursuing anything that moves or flies within close proximity. It is not unusual to see two or three male wasps locked together in midair combat, the aggregate adopting an erratic and uncontrolled flight path until one of the wasps breaks away. The male wasp's aggressive behavior is extremely similar to that of another robust insect of the area, the male carpenter bee. In both cases, while the males' vigorous territorial defense can be extremely frightening and intimidating to human passersby, the males pose no danger whatsoever. They will only grapple with other insects, and cannot sting.
This ground-burrowing wasp may be found in well-drained, sandy soils to loose clay in bare or grass-covered banks, berms and hills as well as next to raised sidewalks, driveways and patio slabs. Females may share a burrow, digging their own nest cells off the main tunnel. A burrow is 15 to 25 cm (6 - 10 in.) deep and about 3 cm (1.5 in.) wide. The female dislodges the soil with her jaws and pushes loose soil behind her as she backs out of the burrow using her hind legs, which are equipped with special spines that help her push the dirt behind her. The excess soil pushed out of the burrow forms a mound with a trench through it at the burrow entrance. Cicada killers may nest in planters, window boxes, flower beds or under shrubs, ground cover, etc. Nests often are made in the full sun where vegetation is sparse.
After digging a nest chamber in the burrow, female cicada killers capture cicadas, paralyzing them with a sting; the cicadas then serve as food to rear their young. After paralyzing a cicada, the female wasp straddles it and takes off toward her burrow; this return flight to the burrow is difficult for the wasp because the cicada is often more than twice her weight. After putting the cicada in the nest cell, the female deposits an egg on the cicada and closes the cell with dirt. Male eggs are laid on a single cicada but female eggs are given two or sometimes three cicadas; this is because the female wasp is twice as large as the male and must have more food. New nest cells are dug as necessary off the main burrow tunnel and a single burrow may eventually have 10 to 20 cells. The egg hatches in one or two days, and the cicadas serve as food for the grub. The larvae complete their development in about 2 weeks. Overwintering occurs as a mature larva within an earth-coated cocoon. Pupation occurs in the nest cell in the spring and lasts 25 to 30 days. There is only one generation per year and no adults overwinter.
This wasp is frequently attacked by the parasitic "velvet ant" wasp, Dasymutilla occidentalis, also known as the "cow-killer" wasp. It lays an egg in the nest cell of the cicada killer, and when the cicada killer larva pupates, the parasitoid larva consumes the pupa.
While they may be frightfully large, female cicada killer wasps are not aggressive and rarely sting unless they are grasped roughly, stepped upon with bare feet, or caught in clothing, etc. One author who has been stung indicates that for them, the stings are not much more than a "pinprick. Males aggressively defend their perching areas on nesting sites against rival males but they have no sting. Although they appear to attack anything which moves near their territories, male cicada killers are actually investigating anything which might be a female cicada killer ready to mate. Such close inspection appears to many people to be an attack, but the wasps rarely even land on people. If handled roughly females will sting, and males will jab with a sharp spine on the tip of their abdomen. Both sexes appear to be well equipped to bite, as they have large jaws; however, they are unable to grasp human skin and cannot bite. They are non-aggressive towards humans and fly away when swatted at, instead of attacking. Cicada killers exert a natural control on cicada populations and thus may directly benefit the deciduous trees upon which cicadas feed.
It is suspected that the Western cicada killer represents more than one species. There is also evidence to suggest that either the Eastern cicada killer has a subspecies or closely related species that mimics the Pacific cicada killer. Alternatively, when they were already well distinct species significant hybridization has occurred between them, though not enough to fully overcome their reproductive isolation.
There is also a South American cicada killer, Sphecius spectabilis (Taschenberg, 1875).
Many other cicada killer wasp species are found in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. There are also several other genera of cicada-killing wasps, e.g. Liogorytes in South America and Exeirus in Australia. The species Exeirus lateritius (Shuckard, 1838) is "the cicada killer" of its native lands, where it occurs in the Murray-Darling Basin, the Australian mainland's south-east coast, and Tasmania.
The original version of this heavily-edited article was a copy of a fact sheet from the Ohio State University Extension.