The sting

For someone with a deadly allergy to wasp stings, I spend far too much time mingling with the local population of eastern cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus).  Truth be told, there’s no other insect on the planet that fascinates me so much, perhaps because of my allergy or perhaps in spite of it.

A male eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my hand (20080622_07469_c)

Honestly I feel like a pyromaniac with burn scars who can’t help but light that next fire.

A male eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my fingertips (20080622_07455_c)


A huge colony of them lives around my home.  A cloud of them buzzes around my front door in summertime.  But they’re docile giants.

Close quarters and agreeable personalities mean I get plenty of opportunities to photograph them.  We hang out, you know, and they’re amiable to photo sessions.  Yet two scenes have eluded me these many years: (1) a female returning to her nest with a cicada in tow and (2) a female capturing a cicada.

A male eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_026003)

You’d think the first of those would be easy.  I could just stand outside my front door until an opportunity presents itself.  Still, I got nothing.

As for the second, that’s a difficult proposition indeed.  How do you know where a female is hunting?  How do you know which cicada she’s going after?  Do you just stand and watch a cicada with the hope of scoring?

It boils down to being in the right place at the right time.

Imagine my pleasant yet frustrated surprise while I was standing in the dense riparian woods along Dixon Branch.  Above me—directly above me—I heard a sudden commotion and a quick cicada buzz.  High in the canopy overhead a female cicada killer wasp was busy subduing a meal for her children.

Female astern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) sting a silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) (2009_09_06_028888)

Even using a 400mm lens didn’t get me close to the action.  They were too high in the tree.  What made matters worse was having one window through the foliage.  Each time I stepped in any direction, they vanished behind leaves and branches.

Female eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) stinging a silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) (2009_09_06_028886)

The silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) struggled a bit after the first sting, but the second sting stopped that right away.  Then she tried maneuvering her catch into a different position and almost lost it.

A female eastern cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) holding a paralyzed silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus) (2009_09_06_028885)

She quickly turned it around and slipped headlong into a dive toward the ground.  I lost her after that as she buzzed through the trees and vanished.

[it’s interesting to note the size of the male in the first two photos compared to the size of the female with the cicada; her prey is a typically large cicada and she’s about the same size: more than two inches/50 mm in length; for the average person with an average hand, the females are about the size of your thumb]

11 thoughts on “The sting”

  1. that’s just crazy! Those shots are just plain cool, Jason. Love ’em! Wasps/Yellow Jackets (and grizzlies) are really the only thing that really freak me out and I’m not even allergic to ’em. Awesome post!

    1. Thanks, Jill! I just felt damn lucky to have been in the right spot at the right time. Sure, a different view might have been better, but catching a female in the act isn’t something you can plan.

      I admit when I first moved here ten years ago and found myself in the middle of this massive colony, I was scared to death. Back then I feared all bees and wasps because of my allergy. This species taught me a great deal and helped me get over that phobia. Well, except when it comes to paper wasps. Since my allergy developed, that’s been the only thing to sting me. Little bastards!

  2. Just out of frame in the first photo: epi pen ready to inject! 🙂

    Seriously, this is just plain awesome. Like you, I’ve witnessed both scenes but can’t imagine being able to photograph them. The burrow incident was especially memorable – I was out collecting with a buddy in a sandy river bank area when we noticed a large hole in the side of the bank. It was obviously a burrow because of the big pile of spillings outside the entrance, at least an inch in diameter, and we were standing there looking at it and pondering what could have dug it. Right then, a female cicada killer buzzed in with a cicada, landed at the burrow entrance, and drug her booty inside before we could even say anything. We just looked at each other like – “woah, that was so cool!”

    1. LMAO! You’re actually right about the epi-pen, Ted. Even though they were males, when I first figured out how to get them to perch on me I was terrified of what I was doing. And I just knew they’d sting me even though they can’t sting. But it was the best immersion therapy I could have hoped for since it broke me of being terrorized at the sight or sound of wasps and bees, let alone the idea of one being on me.

      I love your story! I know that feeling of awe when you see a female fly in with a cicada. What’s impressive is not just the size of the wasp, but it’s her stamina and strength to fly with a cicada, something as large as–or larger than–she is.

  3. massive respect mate the photos are something ive never seen before sorry but you are crazy i couldnt do it i hate all wasps and bees before you say it i can live without honey just wish i didnt have to live with wasps or bees am from england british wasps seem to sting me for nothing once i woke up first thing in morning went to toilet then got back into bed not known that a wasp had gone under my bed sheets i shot up in pain i didnt have a clue what was wrong then i pulled my sheets off the bed and the it was a wasp crawling on my bed must have laid on it because it was stuggling to walk never mind fly i thort you Bastard that hurt your gonna get it so i squshed it to death with a dvd case after doing that i felt loads better it shouldnt have been in my bed not a good thing to happen when your half asleep

    1. I hear you, Julian. Even though I’ve worked through my paralyzing fear of being around wasps and bees, I still have a deep worry about being stung when they’re near me. The last time I was stung turned out to be the worst experience ever because my allergic reaction gets more severe each time it happens, so I have a great deal of respect for them and what they can do. A situation like yours–one being around me without me knowing–is my greatest worry. So I stay as aware as possible and I accept that I can’t spend my life living in fear, especially because I love being out in nature too much (and living in a subtropical region with plenty of warmth means bees and wasps are a year-round reality).

  4. Oh Jason, Jason, Jason. You like to dance in the flames my friend! But I admire your commitment to quelling the fear. Not good to be in thrall to something so negative. And I reassure myself that you know how to behave in the company of such ‘gentle giants’.

    The wasp/ cicada shots are beauties. Well done.

    1. Thank you, Clive! I was just glad to be in the right place at the right time for the predator/prey shots. And yes, I tread carefully around wasps. The stings I’ve suffered since developing this allergy have all been unexpected and not due to me poking my nose into their world. For those I do approach and interact with, I use understanding and good judgment lest I wind up fertilizer for the effort.

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