And now the predator

Yesterday I shared some photos of a cicada.  In my neck of the woods, they are prey for a great many things, but most importantly they represent the entire foundation of survival for the colony of cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) that lives and dies each year right outside my front door.  And this year is no different.

A few weeks ago I spoke of the returning of these behemoths.  I said then “I suspect I will see the pinnacle of their numbers within the next few weeks.”  It has been a few weeks and there are now dozens of them buzzing around from the front door to the back patio, flying fortresses in the wasp world who easily overshadow their cousins by leaps and bounds when it comes to size.

I will endeavor to capture more photos and videos of these gentle giants (or, at least in the case of the males, harmless yet aggressive giants).  However, the crunch on my time has greatly hindered my usual jaunts through nature’s splendor.

Nevertheless, yesterday I was surprised to get at least a small glimpse of something I’d never seen before.

Morning sunlight hurried to pour over me on what already was a warm and muggy day.  Even in shorts and a light tank top, sweat beaded upon my brow and threatened to blind me as I stood in the midst of aerial bombardment and acrobatics.  My favorite insects were everywhere.  Males gave chase to anything that moved, including me and some of the neighborhood cats, not to mention cottonwood seeds floating by on lazy breezes, while females whizzed by with only breaths between us as they hurried about the hunting of cicadas.

Let me mention the women folk of this brood are enormous, as I’ve mentioned before, and their strength undoubtedly is many times that of more common wasps such as hornets, dirt and mud daubers, paper wasps, and yellow jackets.  Despite their mass of predatory power, I can only imagine the serious business involved with towing a paralyzed cicada back to the nest.  If I don’t get out of their way as they approach, they have no choice but to run right into me.  Relatively speaking, the cicada probably weighs more than the wasp because of its bulky body, so she has her work cut out for her already with ensuring its safe transport.  That leaves little time or energy to focus on quick maneuvers to get around dumb humans who don’t know any better.

But this story is not about getting hit by the males on several occasions yesterday, or even about the one instance where I didn’t move quickly enough as a female approached and subsequently got thwacked on the left shoulder as be rebounded off me (and yes, she still managed to get her prize to the nest that was behind me, although I can’t imagine I helped much by standing there like a dumb rock).

Nay, poppets, this post is about passion.  Or at least procreation.

And it’s also about comparison.

With the sun almost ready to spring over the trees and blanket me, where it no doubt would certainly burn me to a cinder, my attention suddenly became diverted with some buzzing hoopla taking place near my feet.  I glanced down and at first thought I was witnessing a real tussle between two males whose encounter had gone from aerial fisticuffs to an all-out brawl.

But closer inspection revealed only one was a male.  He was holding tightly to the back of a female, a creature that dwarfed even his large frame.  And she did not appear to be happy about it.

I could not for the life of me determine why he would be so violently attacking her, especially with his prodding her as though trying to sting despite not having a stinger.  Then it hit me.

This rough-and-tumble scene could be nothing less than a mating encounter.  So I set about trying to capture some images.

Which was not easy at all.  They rolled about, curled up in a ball that never remained still, she buzzed across the grass and concrete with him in tow, and I found myself amazed to see her dragging the two of them more than a yard (a meter) across the ground as she struggled with his constant badgering advances.

Yet perhaps that is precisely how they copulate.  Perhaps it is with them as it is with most spiders: a dangerous proposition, but one necessary to keep the species alive.

So I knelt on the ground and attempted to take some pictures of the event.  Not an easy task, I’ll tell you.  On that scale, macro is really the best way to go, yet macro is not the easiest photography method when dealing with a rapidly moving object.  Each time I got focused on them, they moved.  So I’d follow and do it over again, only to have them move some more.

Out of almost four dozen images captured, I walked away with fewer than a handful that offered anything other than a blur of motion or an out-of-focus mass of something or other.

And having to be within inches of this violent scene frightened me, what with my severe allergy to wasp stings and all.  Keep in mind I already was in the middle of their nesting ground, the one place where females will be aggressive on a regular basis if interfered with, and there I was on all fours invading the personal space of one female who was quite busy with her mate—whether voluntarily or otherwise.  And all the while, the entire space around me remained filled with the comings and goings of other females, and the bombing and strafing runs of significantly more males—dozens of them, in fact.  I was hit many times by these masculine attackers, and several times I had to duck or weave to avoid being the point of impact for an inbound queen buzzing through with a cicada weighing her down.

All of these photos were captured in sequence as the wasps happened to have just fallen off the concrete onto the ground cover.  It was the only spot where they remained in one place long enough for me to get close, get focused, and snap some pictures.  As you’ll see from the last one in the sequence, they began to move again by that point, and she dragged the two of them a few feet away (slightly less than a meter) until finally they disappeared under a bush—where I wasn’t going to follow as it was in the middle of Wasp Avenue.  Besides, digging around under there during their private moment seemed the best way to get stung.

A mating pair of cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) (201_0114)

You can see he’s on her back.  You can also see the significant size difference, especially evident with their wings, not to mention their abdomens (although his is slightly obscured by his wings).

A mating pair of cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) (201_0115)

That’s an even better comparison of scale as you can more clearly see his length and overall size compared to her.  No wonder he wants to be on top.  If she ever got him into a submissive position, he’d be in real trouble.  And don’t forget she’s armed while he is not.

A mating pair of cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) (201_0117)

Although I realize that one is blurry because they had already started their forward motion toward the bush, movement heavily punctuated with quite a bit of buzzing and rolling about, I think that image provides the best comparison of their size difference.  Just look at her head compared to his, let alone her entire body.  Remember she was more than two inches (5 centimeters) long and at least half an inch (1.25 centimeters) wide, although I’m only estimating since I didn’t exactly pull out a ruler and ask her for her measurements.  For comparison, keep in mind the queens are as long as North America’s largest cicadas from tip of head to tip of wing, although they do not sport the same body girth as their prey.

And lest you think me a pervert for focusing solely on a sexual series of images, let me share one more taken a bit later.

I saw a queen loitering about the patio and stepped outside to take some pictures if an opportunity arose.  I believe she was busy looking for a nest site as she buzzed around the edges of the concrete, investigated every little nook and cranny, and dug around in the undergrowth and ground cover.  She never stayed still for more than a second or two.  Don’t think I didn’t try for some macro close-ups, though, for I did.  She didn’t cooperate with that quest.

Finally, when I thought I’d never get her to sit still long enough for even one shot, she flew through the fence and landed in the corner.  She sat on the ground for a smidgen of time longer than she had elsewhere, so I was able to get a high-speed image of her.

A female cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) (201_0165)

The moment the flash went off, she leaped into the air, flew around me for a moment, then vanished over the fence and around the corner.

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