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

Lying in wait

Why hang out and let life come to you?  Although I don’t recommend it for people, the approach does seem to work for other species.

A green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) sitting atop a leaf (20080809_10707)

A green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) resting atop a leaf in hopes of ambushing some unaware prey.  Taken at the family farm in East Texas.

A close-up of a male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) as he rests on the ground (20080607_06230)

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) holding his territory as he waits for females to pass by.  Taken outside my front door.

A green anole (Anolis carolinensis) sunning itself on a warm rock from beneath a canopy of foliage (IMG_20071230_00654_p)

A green anole (Anolis carolinensis) grabbing some rays on a warm rock shrouded by foliage.  (A wider view can be seen here.)  Taken at the end of the private drive leading from my home to the lake park.

One need not leave the patio…

…to enjoy a bit of the natural world.

This weekend I have spent my time doing the on-call thing for work.  Right now I feel drunk, although not from alcohol.  From lack of sleep, yes.

I’ve had perhaps two hours of rest since five in the morning on Friday.

Needless to say, it’s been a hell of a weekend.  And not in a good way.

Still, my want to take walks and snap photos suffers no lasting damage from such times, for it is with a great sense of gift that I can stand outside on my own patio and get a fix for my need.

Nature comes to me, you see.

Clance standing outside the patio fence (20081005_13300)

Clance[1].  For some time I thought I would never see his cross-eyed face again.  He disappeared for more than a year with but one or two minor visits in early 2007.  I hoped for the best and feared the worse: that he had been adopted and that he had died, respectively.

Then he suddenly reappeared maybe two months ago.  Now he comes running when he sees me on the patio and he purrs and meows as he speaks to me with trust and affection.  I’m thrilled to see he’s alright.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched on the patio fence (20081005_13353)

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus).  Whilst kneeling on the patio floor trying to snap photos of a lizard, I heard the tiniest bit of noise beside me, something much like a dry leaf rustling against an old log.

Slowly I turned and looked over my shoulder.  There hardly an arm’s length from me perched this little bird.  He clung to the fence and glanced about as though he’d lost something.

In truth, I put birdseed out every day.  The sparrows join the cardinals, the blue jays, the mourning doves, the rock doves, the Carolina wrens and a litany of other species as they each vie for their bit of the bounty.  My little sparrow friend probably wanted to make sure no threats lurked about before he dove to the ground for a bite to eat.

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi) standing atop the patio fence (20080516_05296)

A friendly fly (a.k.a. government fly or large flesh fly; Sarcophaga aldrichi)[2].  It sat atop the patio fence soaking up sunshine.  If I approached too closely, it scooted off in one direction or another, but it never flew away—at least not until it was ready to do so.

I enjoyed watching it, appreciating its behemoth size and dazzling contrast of colors.  And the fact that it was so tolerant of me made it even better.

A male green anole (Anolis carolinensis) challenging me from the tree with this throat fan fully displayed (20080613_06520)

A male green anole (Anolis carolinensis).  He spent a great deal of time challenging me as I stood and watched him climb down the tree rooted just outside the patio fence.  Having been confronted by my share of anoles, I thought nothing of this contest save that it made for a good photo opportunity.

What I didn’t know would be discovered later.  He defied me only because he meant to woo a lady of his kind who hid in the branches above him.  Minutes later I returned to the patio and discovered his display had so impressed her that she had succumbed to his ways.

Yes, the two of them stood on the side of the tree and consummated their meeting in a public display of affection that would so offend James Dobson and his bigoted ilk that they—the lizards—likely would have found a new constitutional amendment being passed to stop reptile procreation altogether due to its immorality.  But I found the exhibition mesmerizing and educating.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia) looking away (20080202_01690)

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon; Columba livia).  Ancestor of all pigeons, this species, despite the unwarranted disgust by many humans, brings a profound beauty to its surroundings.  The iridescent feathers, the amber eyes, the tolerance for our ways and our places…  Well, I find them intriguing and beguiling.

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana) eating cat food outside the patio fence (20081102_14542)

A Virginia opossum (a.k.a. possum; Didelphis virginiana).  Part of the cleaning crew, in fact, as you can see this one readily went to work on the cat food I had just put out for Clance.  After the cat had his fill, he walked away.  That’s when, much to my surprise, this opossum scampered around the corner, ambled up to the table so to speak, and began munching away.

Oh, and the marsupial knew I was there.  I knelt next to the fence only a yard/meter away, so every sound and movement I made set off alarm bells for this small juvenile (not as small as the baby, though).  But I know something about them: their eyesight is relatively poor, although they can hear and smell like a top predator.  Staying downwind of the little cutie and not making a lot of noise meant it only looked at me with suspicion if I moved too much or accidentally sounded my presence with some clumsy racket.

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched atop a leaf (20080620_07043)

A male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus).  My favorite insect in all the world, and a most gentle and placid leviathan if ever there was one.  The huge colony of these beasts that surrounds my home thrives only for a brief period before falling under the heels of time’s onward march.  But during that short life they captivate me to no end, and they give of their calm nature the companionship made possible only by two disparate lives sharing a clear understanding: we can be friends.

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[1] Many would argue that domestic cats are not natural.  I beg to differ.  The wildcat who gave life to this species has been pushed to near extinction by humans.  What can fill that ecological niche if not the very children of the parents put to death by the march of our intelligent advancement.

That said, I don’t like the idea of outside cats, I don’t like seeing them outside fending for themselves and being exposed to all manner of illness and danger, yet the humane side of me—the part of me that knows what it means to be human—likes even less the idea of seeing them go hungry and without compassion.  I put lots of money into no-kill shelters each month in hopes that some of these lost souls will find a home; meanwhile, I have no intention of turning my back on them when I can afford to offer a meal, a bit of attention and friendship, and a kind soul to whom they can speak.

[2] Amazingly, this is not a macro shot.  I stood some distance from the fly and zoomed in to take the picture.

[3] The photo is bad, I know, but I took it in very poor lighting and with the camera on the wrong settings.  I was more intrigued and enthralled with the opossum than I was with making a piece of art.  So sue me.

Faces that we meet and pass

A Monk parakeet (a.k.a. quaker parrot; Myiopsitta monachus) walking through the grass (20080713_09580)

Monk parakeet (a.k.a. quaker parrot; Myiopsitta monachus)

“Is he taking pictures of the grass?”

“Looks like it.”

“How weird.”

They didn’t notice the parakeet rummaging about the ground beneath a shade tree.  All they noticed was that I stood there taking photos of something they failed to see.

Close-up of a male green anole (Anolis carolinensis) as he challenges me with a full fan display (20080702_08942)

Male green anole (Anolis carolinensis)

“Dude, are you taking pictures of your patio fence?”

“No.  There’s a lizard standing here challenging me.  I thought I might snap a few pictures.”

He looks at the reptile before returning his gaze to me and saying, “Just a lizard?”


He sees just a lizard, just a small, insignificant life that offers nothing for his world.

I see a master of his territory, a predator controlling the local insect population, a marvelous creature with the climbing ability of a gecko and a color-changing ability superior to that of a chameleon.  I see a grand living thing.

Close-up of a female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) as she perches on a stem (20080712_09324)

Female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

“What are you taking pictures of?”

“Everything.  Birds, trees, flowers, lizards, insects—”

“Oh, cool.  Seen any interesting bugs?”

“There were some beautiful dragonflies around the marsh back there.”

“Really?  We must have missed them.”

They missed a plethora of life, so many insects filling the air and foliage that I found it impossible to count them.  All they noticed was the man taking photos as he walked the edge of the marsh and woodlands.

Close-up of Elvis, a male muscovy duck (Cairina moschata), as he watches me take pictures (20080701_08879)

Male muscovy duck (Cairina moschata)

“Wait, Mom.  I wanna take a picture of the ducks.”

“They’re always here, sweetheart.  Let’s look for something more interesting for you photograph.”

Her daughter noticed, noticed how uncommon the common can be, how beautiful nature is in all its forms even when we see it day after day.

I noticed, especially when Elvis walked right up to me to see what I was doing kneeling in the grass.  He and I have developed a bond of trust such that he’ll come to me to investigate and will gladly stand next to me in case I have something to offer.  He knows I won’t hurt him.  And he knows I never ignore him.

A male swan goose (Anser cygnoides) sleeping in the grass

Male swan goose (Anser cygnoides)

They climb out of their car and walk directly to where the swan geese are sleeping and preening.

The father lets his two small children chase the animals, each screaming in joy as the birds honk and flap their wings as they run.

I worry as there are goslings mixed in with the crowd.

I hope one of the parents beats up your brats, I think to myself.

Then I watch as a large male knocks over the young boy and bites at him before fleeing in the opposite direction.  The child screams in shock or pain, or both, and I laugh to myself.

They don’t notice the beauty of these creatures.  Both children and their father see nothing more than entertainment, creatures to be chased and abused to satisfy a need to be cruel, to be hateful.

Close-up of a great egret (Ardea alba) (20080628_08248)

Great egret (Ardea alba)

A dog rushes headlong toward ducks lounging in the shade at the lake’s edge.  The owner stands by and does nothing.

Wings flap and flutter as panic strikes the group.  They all retreat toward the water as they take flight.

The reeds next to the flocking birds hides something else, something besides the water lapping at the shore.

Frightened by the commotion and the rushing canine, an egret takes flight, limping as it struggles into the air.  Its leg is hurt such that it might be broken.

The dog cares little for such things and its owner even less.  They don’t notice the pain, the limp, or even the unnecessary stress their antics place on these animals.

But I notice.  I shake my head with evident disgust before walking away.  I ignore the dog’s owner as he heaves primitive insults at me for my obvious disapproval.

Close-up of a male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) as he perches on a leaf (20080621_07182)

Male cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus)

“I was at the pool yesterday, and there are some really big bees over there by the bridge.”

“You mean the cicada killers?”

I already feel good that he knows what they are.

He continues, “The big wasps, you mean?”

“I guess so,” she replies.

“They’re harmless.  They won’t hurt you.  All they do is kill cicadas.”

By the look on her face, I doubt she believes him.

His response is so calm, so understanding, that I realize he has no intention of doing anything about the second wasp colony a block away from where I live.  He knows they pose no threat, knows they only live for a few months.

I feel a great sense of relief and pride that he notices them, understands them, and has no intention of interfering with their short lives.

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.