Wasp whisperer

You shall no doubt think me insane…

Meet Buddy.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on the fence next to me (20080622_07409)

Buddy is a male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) who just this morning decided my patio fence made the perfect territorial perch from which to survey his kingdom and search for mates.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on the fence next to me (20080622_07399)

Buddy is a friend.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my fingers (20080622_07451)

After just a few minutes of spending time with him, he began trusting me such that he would perch on me, rest on the fence right next to me, fly about in front of the camera as I moved it to and fro, and not flee when I moved around—including putting the camera within a breath of his position so I could try some very close macro shots.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my fingertips (20080622_07465)

Unfortunately for him, our relationship will only last another month or so at best, and much less than that if he’s already mated at least once or if he succumbs to a predator.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) walking toward the palm of my hand (20080622_07469)

Chills ran up and down my spine the first time he landed on me.  Not because I feared he might sting me; males of this species have a false stinger that serves only one purpose: mating.

The moment of overwhelming emotion stemmed from two great truths.  First, such a moment might never happen again after I relocate since I know of no such colony near where I intend to live in the Piney Woods.  Second, having gone through this same trust-building process with this species, I know Buddy will not forget that he is safe with me, on me, around me, and now so long as he is alive he will continually demonstrate this same level of comfort and confidence while in my presence.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my fingertips (20080622_07455)

One interesting piece of this series is that it shows the moderately small size of this species’ males.  They are larger than the females of other wasp species (save that of the tarantula hawk), but now consider this: this male’s female counterparts are nearly twice as large as he is, something I tried to capture with this series of photos showing a mating pair of cicada killers.

I intend to visit with Buddy a few more times today before sunlight reaches the patio.  These wasps tend to vanish for a noon siesta and relocate to shadier spots as the sun heads toward the western horizon.  He will no doubt claim other territory later today, after which I might not see him again—at least knowingly, that is, as many dozens of males now encircle the house on three sides.

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[1] While at first it was rather difficult to capture images of him on my hand, he quickly became tolerant of the camera and my shifting and moving.  Nevertheless, this kind of photography is complicated.  The camera could only be an arm’s length from my hand since I had to see what I was shooting and had to work the controls.  I’m thrilled some of the photos turned out to be presentable.

[2] These photos were all taken prior to 10 am, and all on the west side of the xenogere homestead (that’s where the patio is).  Therefore, the only light I had was indirect sunlight.  That’s why the photos aren’t of the best quality, and that’s also why I used the flash several times—something I’m oftentimes loathe to do.

[3] One thing this series demonstrates is what I have always maintained about these wasps: they are docile, gentle giants.  Even the females will perch upon me momentarily, although that happens maybe once per season as they spend their time mating, building nests, hunting and eating.  The responsibility for future generations rests entirely on their tireless labor, so it behooves them to remain busy throughout their short lives.  Even so, one would have to brutalize a female to invoke a sting.  They truly are even-tempered creatures who will treat us humans with the same respect with which we treat them.

[4] I am not advocating that you run outside and start manhandling every insect you see.  One should never touch an insect unless it’s already known to be safe or is understood well enough to be safe.  There are caterpillars that can deliver stings worse than any wasp; there are centipedes that cause death; there are beetles that can pass along disease as well as a painful bite, let alone burning the skin like flame; there are ants whose sting is said to feel like a gunshot (aptly named the bullet ant); and the list goes on.  While my love of insects constantly pushes me to understand them and appreciate them, I would never handle one without knowing it to be safe either because it has no defense or because its nature is understood well enough to render that defense non-threatening.

[5] As for navel-gazing, I wonder if I love this species so vehemently as part of facing my worst fear: being stung by ants or wasps, and bees to a lesser degree.  My allergy to the former outstrips the latter by orders of magnitude, yet all three represent an immediate and deadly threat to me should I be the subject of one or more stings (one is bad enough; more than that and exponentially I become less able to recover).  As one of the largest wasps in the world, this docile species grants me a tremendous reassurance that respect is the first step toward ensuring I am not victimized.  I might have chosen a smaller cousin, sure, but that’s like facing a fear of drowning by filling a sink and splashing a bit of that water on our faces.  I consider that cheating.  Then again, my love of insects is unequaled by the rest of nature (which I love greatly, so that says something); it is perhaps with a sense of irony that the most dangerous thing to me in the common world is also the dearest to my heart.

[6] Coaxing Buddy to land on me the first time was key to ensuring he would do it again and again.  That single act bridged the distance between us and allowed him to see me as something other than a threat.  I used the same method I’ve used year after year to accomplish the same thing; it relies on understanding the species, understanding their behavior, understanding why they do what they do, understanding at least partially how they see and face the world around them.  Five years of close study and interaction make this possible, not to mention a great deal of research.

[7] I named him because it seemed agreeable that I call him something after our comradeship burgeoned, developing from suspicion to trust in the short time I spent with him this morning.  After all, I did speak to him as he flitted about, darted after everything that moved, and time and again returned to perch on me somewhere (one time doing so on my cheek!).  If we’re to be friends, ‘hey you’ seems a rather unfriendly way to address each other.

[8] The title is not of my own making.  That’s another story I hope to share soon.  Let me just admit this: I was called a ‘wasp whisperer’ by two college kids who were terrified of these creatures.  Simply terrified…

[9] Again, thank Mom for my love of insects.  Plain and simple, she has been, is, and always will be the reason I find such joy and comfort in these animals.  Were it not for her, I’d probably run screaming like a child when one approached me, which would make me very much like most other people on the planet.

One thought on “Wasp whisperer”

  1. In summer 1992 my Samoyed dog Frosty was in my backyard transfixed at the sight of an obviously female (due to size) cicada killer wasp. The wasp also may have been transfixed by Frosty. The wasp was hovering in stationary mode a few inches from his nose as he was looking slightly upwards in diagonal trajectory towards the wasp. I yelled at top of my lungs for him to come to me. Frosty refused. After a while, the wasp soared away. Frosty was never in danger of being stung. He knew to not snap at it. That, from a breed whose origins were in a part of the world with no wasps of any kind (Western Siberia).

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