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