Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a photinia leaf (20080621_07153)

It’s that time of year again, poppets.  The first ten days of June.  The time frame during which eastern cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) make their first appearance.  The brief snippet from the year when my insect obsession bares its teeth.

And right on schedule, the first female showed up in the last few days, buzzing me several times as I stood on the patio.  Always a female first, a leviathan who generates such a baritone hum as she flies that one would think a low-flying airplane was nearby.

Last year my nearest neighbors had only just moved in, and they faced this phenomenon with not too small a bit of obvious trepidation.  I seem to remember some shrieking and running at first…

But experience and my own explanations have prepared them for it this year.  They understand that, despite the menacing size and appearance of these wasps, the insects pose no threat.  Their busying to and fro belies a gentle nature that borders on unbelievable, making these giants a dichotomy unto themselves.

All the local colonies have suffered an ongoing collapse these past four years.  Where once a cloud of them surrounded my home, last year only a handful could be seen at any one time.  But last year offered a rebounded cicada population lacking before.  Did that help?  Will the wasp colonies have recovered some of their previous gigantism?  Only time will tell.

Though male cicadas began singing many weeks ago, their numbers this year remain low, at least thus far.  This does not bode well for the emerging cicada killers.  I watch with bated breath as more wasps emerge, the colonies reaching their maximum population in the next two weeks, after which a slow falling until, six weeks from now, they will be but a memory, a “remember when…” for this year and a subterranean hope for next year.

I will do my best to spend as much time as possible with them while they are around.  I don’t know what it is about this species that so entrances me, so enamors me, but its undeniable machinations once again call me to observe, to enjoy, to study.

— — — — — — — — — —

Quite obviously: the title is a quote from Henry V by William Shakespeare.

Photo is of a male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched in the photinia bushes that surround my patio.


Close-up of a female green anole (a.k.a. Carolina anole; Anolis carolinensis) perched on the patio wall (20080901_11739)

I’m not the only one who’s been busy observing the nesting box I built and placed on the patio.  This female green anole (a.k.a. Carolina anole; Anolis carolinensis) is just one of the critters who took an interest in the goings on by the various bee and wasp species using the box.  Interestingly enough, I’ve seen these lizards try to tackle bees and wasps before, including the giant eastern cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus).  Though I’ve never seen them successfully grab any bee or wasp species, it tickles me to watch, especially when it involves the cicada killers as those wasps are far too large for an anole to overpower, let alone consume.  But that doesn’t stop them from trying.

As for the nesting box, it’s proven to be one of the best ideas I’ve had.  It’s providing a breadth and depth of observational knowledge that I could never have attained otherwise.

For example, I never knew cuckoo wasps are able to drill holes in dried mud nests in order to lay their egg inside.  They start by chewing at the nest first, perhaps to soften up the dry mud, then they wedge the spines on their gaster against the soft spot and proceed to vibrate at an almost imperceptible speed.  Eventually they’re able to get their prehensile ovipositor into the nest through this tiny, nearly invisible hole.

Also, leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.) are bullies.  When one finished her first nesting tube, she decided to move to the tube next to it.  That tube was already in use by a mason wasp (Euodynerus hidalgo hidalgo).  This resulted in a 24-hour fight—No kidding!  Eventually the leafcutter bee pulled the mason wasp out of the nest and beat her up in midair.  The wasp moved on and the bee set about dislodging and ejecting the existing nest material from the tube.  I now have little piles of sand and a lot of paralyzed caterpillars spread around the patio (which has attracted hordes of acrobat ants [Crematogaster laeviuscula] to clean up the critters).  Meanwhile, the mason wasp has moved to a new tube where she’s already begun a new nest (technically it will be her third because she finished her first one a few days ago and her second one now has a leafcutter squatter).

Much to my surprise, the nesting critters sleep in the tube they’re working on.  I didn’t realize this until one morning around sunrise I knelt down and leaned in close to see what was what inside the tubes.  One of the mason wasps charged to the tube entrance.  I had no idea!  In the days since, I’ve seen that the leafcutter bees and both mason wasp species do this (the mason bee tubes are too small to see if anything’s moving inside them).  And though they’ll charge to the front of the tube in a show of defiance, it’s more bluster than anything else; as solitary stingers, they’re not particularly aggressive unless you manhandle them.

Finally, size really does matter.  The leafcutter bees are large; in fact, they’re too large for all but the largest nesting tubes.  The mason wasps and mason bees (Osmia sp.), on the other hand, are small and/or slender enough to use any of the tubes.  The first time I saw a mason wasp (Euodynerus megaera) land on one of the smallest holes, I quietly thought she’d soon learn she would need an upgrade.  But I was the one who would soon learn.  She promptly folded back her wings and slipped inside as though walking through double doors.  Impressive!  Euodynerus hidalgo hidalgo is also small enough to use those holes, and certainly the mason bees are small enough to do so.

When it comes to species seen, here’s what I can tell you:

  • Mason wasps (Euodynerus hidalgo hidalgo)
  • Mason wasps (Euodynerus megaera)
  • Leafcutter bees (Megachile sp.)
  • Mason bees (Osmia sp.)
  • Cuckoo wasps (Chrysis coerulans), targeting dirt dauber nests and not the nest box
  • One, if not two, other cuckoo wasp species targeting the wasps and bees in the box
  • At least two species of chalcidoid wasp, though they’re too small and move around too quickly for a good look—at least thus far
  • And the usual suspects: black and yellow mud daubers (a.k.a. mud wasp; Sceliphron caementarium) and common potter wasp (a.k.a. dirt dauber; Eumenes fraternus), not to mention the paper wasps I keep having to kick off the patio

Oh, and when it comes to the green anole’s fabulous colors, that show is courtesy of the “Oh no!” hue that filled the sky last Tuesday just before our tornado outbreak.  Yes, the sky took on that ominous color that just shouts danger is on its way.  In the end, that evening we had at least ten confirmed tornadoes in and around the DFW metroplex.  Rest assured we spent some of that time huddled in the bathroom during the overlapping tornado warnings that stretched on for two hours and were accompanied by three blasts of the warning sirens.  Still, just before it got ugly, the combination of threatening sky and deep shadows really made for some beautiful colors on otherwise ubiquitous objects, lizards included.

Failure to communicate

I’m quite tolerant when it comes to letting critters nest in and around my home.  Rats and mice, not so much; I mean insects.  I’ve let moths pupate in the living room because they somehow found their way inside and built their cocoon in a corner.  I’ve let various wasps nest in the garage and on the patio for many years.  Several different ant species nest around the patio, from acrobat ants to a species of tiny black ant so small that they mostly go unnoticed unless I’m on my hands and knees looking very closely.

A Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perching on the sidewalk (20080609_06336)

And I’ve thrilled at the existence of a massive colony of eastern cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) that stretches around my entire home.  These leviathans intimidate most everyone who sees them, but they’re gentle giants, docile behemoths that bring me great joy.

In fact, during my rather terrible sleepless period, I stayed up one night and built a homemade nesting box for solitary bees and wasps.  You see, last year for the first time I decided not to tear down the old mud dauber nests on the patio.  Usually I remove them to make room for the next year’s nests.  But having left them up last year, I found myself the proud guardian of an autumnal group of mason bees who discovered the old mud tubes and found them quite useful for their last generation of the year.

So in early spring this year, I discovered mason bees emerging from those old nests and immediately searching for new nest sites.  Mason bees like to nest in the same general area where they were born, so I decided to help them.  The nesting box I built has about three dozen nesting tubes in it, and they vary in size from straw diameter to perhaps the diameter of an index finger.  This has drawn in leafcutter bees, at least two species of mason wasps, at least one species of mason bee, and the requisite parisitoid cuckoo and chalcidoid wasps.

And I’ve already become a proud papa from their efforts.  Three mason wasp nests have erupted with tiny mason wasps, one mason bee nest has birthed an army of tiny mason bees, and one mason wasp nest has given rise to a cuckoo wasp.  Fun stuff!

Yet my tolerance for these species notwithstanding, I do have limits.  That is never more evident than when it comes to social bees and wasps.  Solitary bees and wasps are welcome, even if they’re communal, but social bees and wasps are not welcome.

Perhaps it’s the lack of fighting for the bathroom while growing up, the lack of shared chores, the lack of sibling rivalries, the lack of being picked on by older brothers and sisters, and/or the lack of parental favorites, but solitary stinger species have such amiable dispositions whilst their social cousins are usually downright mean.  And the best example comes from paper wasps.

A female paper wasp (a.k.a. common paper wasp or Guinea wasp; Polistes exclamans) collecting wood pulp from the patio fence (20080516_05312_n)

In the typical pulp-making stance with stinger held high, this female paper wasp (a.k.a. common paper wasp or Guinea wasp; Polistes exclamans) has been busy preparing to start her nest.  Unfortunately for her, she has insisted on building that nest on the patio.  Which I can’t allow.

The first time I found her handiwork, the little stub of paper was hanging under the fence railing in the southeast corner of the patio.  That puts it just about at chest height.  Um, nope, that’s not gonna work.

So I waited for her to leave before I knocked it down, hoping she’d get the message and move her efforts elsewhere.  Not so much.

She spent the following day pretty much absent, but then the day after that I found her building in the corner near the ceiling.  In the southwest corner of the patio.  Broom at the ready, I made short work of that building effort, but this time I took a swing while she was there as I hoped it would show her that this is not a friendly neighborhood.

Two days later she was at it again, this time under the fence railing in the middle of the west side of the patio.  I had to laugh when I found this new nest because (a) she wasn’t taking “no” for an answer, and (b) she was working her way clockwise around the outside of the patio as though just a little further away from the last incident would make all the difference.

Well, her shenanigans went on for almost two weeks, eventually landing her new wanna-be home on the outside of the patio door in the bedroom.  This was her seventh attempt and it brought her about three-quarters of the way around the patio from where she started.  I swung the door open to step outside and found myself—quite literally—face to face with her.  She was building at eye height on a door that swings inward when opened.  That’s a really bad idea.

I made sure to hit her with the broom for that one, and despite our failure to communicate for such a long time before then, getting smacked down seems to have driven the message home.  She didn’t come back after that.

Now, as they did last year, I’m more than happy to let social bees and wasps nest in the tree outside my patio.  This puts us at a safe distance where they’re not bothered by me and I’m not threatened by them.  But as she eventually learned, we don’t allow nesting on the patio or inside—not even inside the garage.

If she and her ilk ever get better personalities, maybe I’ll rethink that rule.

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]

Pugnacious polistes

As a young child I would cry when a bee or wasp stung me.  What little kid doesn’t?  At that age, the injection of venom feels like the end of the world.

Then I grew older and learned to ignore the pain.  It became inconsequential, a barely noticeable pinch, a slight burn that lasted no more than an hour.  By then I was playing many an afternoon in the garden catching bees and wasps with my bare hands.  I never really understood what the game was about—despite it being a game of my making—but I always knew how the game ended: when my hand was too swollen to close around the next insect.

When I reached puberty, however, all that changed.  I developed a deadly allergy to the sting of bees, wasps and ants, a twofold dilemma that includes an allergic response (anaphylaxis) and an immune response (sepsis).

Yet despite the very real threat, I don’t fear things that sting or bite.  When a bark scorpion stung me twice several weeks ago, it was because I was trying to pick it up so I could show it to a friend, only it was in an advantageous position that made me an easy target.  All sorts of stingy and bitey things live around and visit my home, and we get along just fine.

Heck, I live in the middle of a massive colony of one of North America’s largest wasps, eastern cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus), and I spend a great deal of time sitting in the middle of the swarm, provoking them to perch on me, handling them at every opportunity, observing every facet of their short lives.

But in general what I don’t like are paper wasps.[1]  My experiences with them have taught me one thing: as a rule they are unpredictable and belligerent, always ready to pick a fight and always ready to put the hurt on you.[2]  I like watching their nests from a distance and I don’t mind individuals getting close to me, but en masse they’re too disagreeable for my taste.[3]

What with names like Polistes bellicosus and Polistes comanchus, not to mention Polistes instabilis, even the scientific community recognizes their contrary nature and tendency to sting first and ask questions never.

Which brings me to last October…

A nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus) (2009_10_18_032568)

I was wandering around the Lake Lewisville Environmental Learning Area when I spied a large nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus).  Colloquially they are known as Apache paper wasps, a name meant to imply something about their collective personality.

I was being good and staying on the trail.  They were being good and staying on their nest, which was hanging in the brush alongside the trail.  Being a smart fellow—or at least a fellow with his personal safety foremost on his mind—I used a telephoto lens to grab a few shots, then I gave them a wide berth as I passed.

A nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus) (2009_10_18_032575)

I returned along that trail about an hour later after exploring the mostly flooded riparian paths.  As I walked back toward the car, I could see things had changed.  The wasps were agitated.  At least half of them buzzed through the trail as if looking to pick a fight.  The other half hurried all over the nest.

And not too far away I could hear a child crying from where the trail intersects the path to the camping area.

A nest of paper wasps (Polistes apachus) (2009_10_18_032578)

I made a mad dash through the swarm and came out the other side with nary a sting.  As I passed the camping area, I pretty much felt certain I understood what had happened.

A young boy sat cradled in a woman’s arms, his mother I assumed.  He had several noticeable stings on his face, arms and legs.  I stopped long enough to ask if they needed me to call for medical help.  The woman assured me that he’d be OK, that he wasn’t allergic.

Then almost in a whisper she said he was learning a necessary lesson the hard way.  “Next time he’ll know I’m serious when I say he shouldn’t get too close.”

I would agree.  From the welts still swelling on his body, it looked like a painfully memorable lesson.  And selfish though it was, I couldn’t help but be grateful that it was him instead of me.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] Not all species of paper wasps are angry little creeps looking to pummel you at the first opportunity.  Polistes annularis is a good example.  These large and intimidating critters are pretty docile.  I can get close to them without worry.  But that’s an exception to the rule since most paper wasps are just damn crazy mad.

[2] To relay a story my mother told: She walked outside at the family farm and stepped to the edge of the back porch.  She did not know paper wasps had built a nest right under her feet.  They swarmed out from under the porch and attacked her legs.  She received more than a few stings.  Keep in mind my mother is a small woman and she couldn’t possibly have caused that much disruption simply by walking over the nest.  But it was enough to piss off the wasp population.

[3] Yesterday I ran into a collection of my archenemy, the red wasp (Polistes carolina).  Their nest had fallen from a tree.  A friend and I came upon it unexpectedly.  This is the only species of wasp to sting me since my allergy developed, a total of three stings since the early 80s.  Yesterday, however, they upped their ante: they stung me three times at once.  That equated to more than eight hours in the emergency room.  And now it means having to cancel a vacation in early August as well as a surprise trip to Canada next week when I intended to meet someone I really want to spend time with.  I can’t promise that the whole of P. carolina will pay the price, but you can bet they’ve made the most inenarrable day of my life an event to remember—and they certainly made the list of enemies to be dispatched by me at any cost.