2010-08-27 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

Cicada-Killer Wasp
Commentary By Stephen S. Yaeger

For the past few days I’ve been finding from two to nine cicadas lying on my driveway drain cover. I thought it was my outdoor cat, Ralphie, who was placing them there as she (yes, a female that I named Ralphie, but that’s another story) often brings us gifts.

It wasn’t until a few days ago that I discovered the real culprit: an approximately two-inch long female Cicada Killer Wasp attempting to force its prey, a paralyzed cicada, throught the obviously small drain openings. She was beautifully patterned with a brownish-black body, yellow marks on the throax and yellow bands on the abdomen.

I felt sorry for her, as she was trying so hard to force the large cicada through the drain hole; so I carefully moved the cover slightly to one side and she immediately took her prey and dragged it into a large opening in the mud walls of the drain.

I recall the first time I saw one of these insects. It was many years ago. My friends and I were sitting on a stoop after a game of stickball (who had little league?) when one of us spotted some sort of commotion going on beneath a tree.

The gang walked over and saw a large, very large, black and yellow wasp lying on a cicada. It was motionless at this time so one of us prodded it with his stickball bat (it was once a broom handle - his mom’s). The wasp immediately lifted off with a loud buzzing sound carrying the cicada. Needless to say at the moment the wasp lifted off each one of us ran away in every compass direction available.

The Cicada Killer can be found throughout the Eastern and Midwestern US and southward into Mexico and Central America. They are solitary wasps feeding on nectar and plant liquids.

In the summer males and females find each other and mate. The female will then find a desirable spot to build its burrow, which she escavates by using her mandibles and hind legs especially designed for such activity. The burrow can be several feet deep and composed of many branches. Once her burrow is completed the female will then hunt for cicadas by searching shrubs and trees.

As soon as she locates a cicada she stings it injecting venom into the hapless creature and paralyzing it. When she’s sure that the cicada is helpless, she straddles the unfortunate victim, lifts off (a phenominal feat since the cidada weighs twice as much as the wasp) and flies directly to the burrrow. The female drags the cicada into the excavation where she secures it deep inside the structure. She then lays a single egg on the living, but paralyzed body and closes the burrow with dirt. Male eggs are laid on a single cicada and female eggs are supplied with two or three cicadas due to the female’s larger size.

In one to two days a larva hatches and begins to feed on the living cicada (This would make a good horror film, wouldn’t it?). In two weeks the larva completes its development and when the meal is gone, it will enter the pupa stage. In the pupa stage the wasp overwinters in the burrow waiting for the summer’s warmth around late June or early July to begin a new generation. The smaller males emerge from their pupal cases some weeks before the females. After leaving the burrow, the male will actively defend its territory waiting to mate with a female and begin a new life cycle. There is only one generation per year and no adults live through the winter.

Although they look aggressive, Cicada Killers are not threatening. The female can sting, but rarely does unless absolutely provoked. The male has no sting, but are territorial and will dive-bomb one’s head if they feel threatened. In any case if stung by a Killer Wasp (or any insect) cool the area with ice and seek medical help, especially if one is allergic to insect venom. Questions/comments? Email Steve: Drawingonscience@ aol.com

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