Early this morning before sunlight had even penetrated the sky above me, I stood on the patio enjoying a cup of coffee and Larenti’s incessant demands for attention (to which, mind you, I acquiesced happily). All about me stirred my winged neighbors as they set about their tasks for the new day. Meanwhile, I watched with gleeful abandon the growing presence of the cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) that live their short summer lives right here around my patio.
I mentioned to Jenny yesterday that I had seen the first couple of males already staking territorial claims and giving chase to anything that invaded the air around them. That happens to be the most entertaining aspect of these behemoths of the wasp world. Although harmless because they have no stinger, males of the species are terribly aggressive. Once they take a spot as their own, they will chase anything that looks like another male. That often includes any other insect that flies by, but it also includes anything else that could be an insect, like cottonwood seeds floating by on a gentle breeze or a flower petal carelessly lost to the wind. They are an entertaining bunch, these wasps, leviathans by any stretch of the imagination and fascinating to all but the fearful of such things.
To see them appearing now brings joy to my heart. As I told Jenny, these wasps are likely my favorite insect. I don’t know why. There always exists the fear of being stung by a female since that would land me in the emergency room. Nevertheless, I know the females are docile and gentle creatures. Sure they are much larger than their male counterparts and significantly larger than any other wasp on the planet. Despite their intimidating size, I know they have only one plan for their short lives: to mate, to build a nest, to hunt, to lay eggs, and to survive long enough so that they might ensure another generation of their kind.
Having such a large colony right here where I can see them daily has offered me ample opportunities over the past few years to gain tremendous understanding of and respect for these creatures. Consider this: close your hand into a fist and know that, due to their size, you could hold only one female in your grip. As long as your thumb and at least as big around as your pinkie, these flying fortresses are indeed a sight to behold. Once the entire brood from last year climbs up from their subterranean beds, there will be dozens of them flitting about, living their abbreviated existences during the hottest months. I suspect I will see the pinnacle of their numbers within the next few weeks.
Due to their aggressive nature, I have been hit on several occasions by males chasing each other. They round the corners of the patio at high speed, one right on the tail of another, and they have too little time to compensate for my presence. The males have no stingers and I have no concern with having them on me, so this proves most disconcerting for them and very entertaining for me. A quick shake of large heads is all they need to regain their composure. Then they’re off again, harmless daredevils intent on dominating the area.
Having such close encounters with the males becomes a footnote when compared to experiences with the females, however, since they are massive in comparison. I find them to be curious creatures, though, much unlike their testosterone-driven counterparts. Many times as I’ve stood quietly watching them, a female heading out to hunt will take a moment or two for an investigation of me. She will fly and hover within inches of me, circling, moving up and down, backing away only to immediately close in again, and finally, having decided there are no cicadas hiding on my limbs, she will turn and disappear around the corner. The sound of this experience inspires wonder and admiration. With wings spanning a distance longer than my middle finger, the amount of air they move while in flight creates a deep hum that is less buzzing and more rumbling, like a large truck driving by in the distance that is felt more than heard.
I have lived with these giants for three years now. Never once have I been hurt. And that despite my having held both males and females in my hands. Lacking an ability to sting, the males pose no problem in that regard, but the females can inflict a painful reminder of why they should be respected. That has never happened, though. As I’ve said, the females are placid souls. Unless I were to interfere with their nesting or hunting, they really don’t see me as threat. So when one crashed on my patio under the weight of the cicada she was carrying back, I gently placed my hand on the ground in front of her as she dragged her catch along the concrete floor. Without a bit of hesitation, she carried the load right up my fingers, at which point I lifted her, turned in the direction she was heading, and held my hand toward the sky. She moved to the tip of my finger, ensured her hold on the food that would sustain her eggs until next year, then off she went. Wobbly, yes, but she was carrying something that weighed at least as much, if not more, than she did. Could you blame her for being a bit unsteady?
Like years past, I shall endeavor to capture some photos and videos of the goings on with this fun group. Hopefully I’ve learned more about my camera since the last opportunity, so perhaps I’ll have better quality offerings this time.
[Update @ 7:45 PM CDT] Tonight while I watched the tiniest of spiders weave a web too profoundly magnificent to be attributed to a creature so small, I heard the first song of a cicada, the voice of one borne from Brood XIII. This did not wrap me in the boisterous cries of annual cicadas. Nay, this indeed rang from the body of the largest and eldest generation of nature’s loudest creature (when compared to body size, that is). Somewhere not distant from me even at this hour, a black, red-eyed insect of enormous size rests loudly within the confines of a tree’s branches. My dearest wasp friends will indeed enjoy a banquet this year, a feast for their young that comes both every year and every seventeen years. The cicada killers of this summer have entered a world seemingly made for their survival.
[Update @ 8:04 PM CDT] I stood outside trying fruitlessly to photograph said tiny spider now sitting in the middle of its geometric web. I doubt any of these images will turn out given the lack of light and the smallness of the target. Nevertheless, far off in the distance, I now hear at least two annual cicadas casting into the evening air their nightly song. Nature indeed has perfect timing, for to launch the predator and the prey within two days of each other is to display marvelous synchronicity. And to birth not just annual cicadas, but also seventeen-year cicadas, the two ringing within my ears on the same evening a song I remember from more than thirty years ago, but also a song I directly correlate with the insect that elicits the most enamored feelings from me. What a splendid night!