Tag Archives: eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus)

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.

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]


Counting the days.  This time of year leaves me increasingly restless, waiting expectantly until the first eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) appears.

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on my fingers (20080622_07465_c)

My favorite insect.  Gentle giants.  Docile and inquisitive.  Beautiful.  Intriguing.

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025997_c)

Years of drought and the subsequent dearth of cicadas wiped out two of the six colonial nesting sites in the area.  The largest, the one that surrounds my home on all sides, was nothing but a shadow of its former self when last year only a dozen or so of the wasps emerged for their short summer lives.  In good years, nearly a hundred adults strike fear in the hearts of passersby whilst simultaneously providing me with weeks of entertainment and drama, not to mention protection (I’ve always said I don’t need a guard dog in summer because I have giant wasps instead).

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025992)

Thankfully, last year offered a glorious resurgence of cicadas in such vast numbers that I suspect the remaining wasp colonies will once again fill the air with clouds of buzzing wings.

So I wait.

[note these photos are of males; the females are significantly larger; see this post for some bad photos showing a mating pair as it will give you a sense of the size disparity]

The hunter

My favorite insect in all the world.  A giant wasp.  Killer of behemoths.  Beautiful predator.  The hunter.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025991)

A colony of hundreds encircles my home, one so large as to dwarf by leaps and bounds the other four colonies within walking distance.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025999)

Gentle giants they are: beautiful, intimidating, leviathan creatures who have not a single malicious intent toward us simple apes.

Close-up of a male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_025997)

And for every dozen males leaping to and fro in the air, every territorial critter chasing anything that moves, a much larger female tends to the matter at hand: mate and multiply.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a cable box (20080609_06320)

The colonies stagger their lives across months, the first emerging from earthen slumber in June and the last in August, and each dies six to eight weeks later.

Male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a leaf (2009_07_05_026001)

Yet in that small time they fill the world with beauty, with fear, with a spectacle no one can ignore.  For as I’ve always said, during the summer months I don’t need a large dog to keep my home safe.  I have gargantuan wasps instead!

Every hunter needs something to hunt, though.  Next: The hunted.

[photos are of male eastern cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus); the last photo was intentionally cross-processed; and no, I still do not have a macro lens, so I have to make do with technique instead of equipment]