Tag Archives: silver-bellied cicada (Tibicen pruinosus)

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]

The hunted

More than 40 cicada species live in Texas.  Some can’t reach an inch (<20mm) in length (e.g., Beameria venosa) while others challenge the three-inch mark (>70mm) with ease (e.g., Tibicen pronotalis).  The rest fall somewhere between those extremes.

Which ones you see and hear depend on where you are and what year it is.  Some species pop up every summer (annual) while others show up every 17 years (periodical).

Of special interest is that annual cicadas do not necessarily follow a one-year lifecycle.  One of the more common cicada species here shows up every year even though it matures on a three-year schedule.  It’s the superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba).

A male superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba) clinging to the side of a tree (2009_07_06_026142)

As I walked home one evening, I found this male singing in the dark.  Only male cicadas sing.

Though I heard him as I approached, he fell quiet when I came near.  He needn’t have worried since it was too dark for me to see him.  Still, his song had already told me he was at eye level, so I stood patiently and waited for him to bellow his chorus into the night air.

Once he did, I knew which tree he was on, so I let the flash fly a few times to locate him, then I snapped a couple of pictures.  He seemed comfortable at that point as he didn’t stop singing again until I turned to walk away.  A few steps later and he was back at it.

A male superb cicada (a.k.a. green harvestfly, green cicada or superb green cicada; Tibicen superba) clinging to bamboo (2009_07_07_026152)

The very next day I found this male of the same species.  Unlike his predecessor, he never stopped singing even when I started poking through the bamboo to find him.  Perhaps that was a sign his love life was lacking and he didn’t have time to stop wooing the ladies.

This year offered a summer full of cicada song.  From dawn till dusk, from and in every direction, the varied music sounded every day, often punctuated with the panicked buzzing and abrupt silence that means another one bit the dust.

The difference from last year seemed profoundly apparent.  Although no tree sounded unoccupied this summer, last year’s cicada population was anemic at best.  A few songs could be heard now and again, but mostly the summer passed in silence.

That had a cataclysmic effect on the cicada-killer wasps.  Their largest colony fills the air each year with more giants than can be counted; this year perhaps a few dozen of them emerged.  A smaller colony a short distance away nearly collapsed: this year I never saw more than two or three wasps there at any time.

A male silver-bellied cicada (a.k.a. silverbelly; Tibicen pruinosus) clinging to a tree branch (10870400)

Also of interest last year was the dearth of cicada species: I never heard songs other than those sung by superb cicadas.  But as this male silver-bellied cicada (a.k.a. silverbelly; Tibicen pruinosus) shows, the summer of 2009 was filled with a variety of insect music sung by various species.

This robust variety stretched from May right through September.  When I visited the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on May 16, I found this not-yet-dry hieroglyphic cicada (Neocicada hieroglyphica) scrambling to climb from the pile of debris where it had fallen.

A hieroglyphic cicada (Neocicada hieroglyphica) in a pile of leaves (2009_05_16_018794)

And just a few days ago as I stood on the patio, this female silverbelly made a less than graceful landing in the tree.

A female silver-bellied cicada (a.k.a. silverbelly; Tibicen pruinosus) hanging upside down in a tree (2009_09_08_028935)

Ill situated to know which end was up, she tried fruitlessly to right herself.  At one point I thought she might pull it off as she hung precariously sideways and faced me directly.  But her near success crumbled beneath an untidy fall from the tree into the bushes below.

I laughed!  She tried so hard yet still wound up demonstrating the clumsy, uncoordinated knack for which cicadas are known.

Despite her tumble, she meandered about the photinias for several minutes until coming to rest in a bit of shade.  She was gone a few hours later.

I hope this explosion of cicadas helped the cicada killers recover from the devastating losses they suffered last year.  After living in the midst of several colonies where summers are full of countless giant wasps, seeing their numbers reduced to pennies on the dollar this year worried me.  I still don’t know if all the colonies survived.

And now that I’ve shown the hunter and the hunted, it’s time to look at the hunt.