She’s a Killer, a Cicada Killer

The annual or dog-day cicadas are back for their free daily concerts which I call, “The Sound of Summer”. Anyone who isn’t familiar with the cicada sounds, can look and listen to this video that I took of a cicada over the long weekend.

This post isn’t about the cicada, but a predator of the cicada called the cicada killer wasp. They are out and about right now, scaring homeowners who are concerned about being stung by these huge wasps.

Cicada killer wasp is a large wasp on sedum

Cicada killer wasp is a large (up to 2″ long), black wasp with bright yellow markings on the abdomen. Adult wasps feed on nectar and larvae feed on cicadas. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

 

The cicada killer is the largest species of wasp in Nebraska. They are sometimes mistaken for killer bees, yellow jackets or hornets but they are a type of solitary wasp. Solitary wasps do not live in large colonies with multiple individuals working and feeding one another. They live on their own, excavating a tunnel in the soil for their offspring. Sometimes many burrows are found in the same location, called a nesting aggregation, but only one female occupies a burrow.

Cicada killer wasps become pests midsummer when cicadas are active. They dig burrows in well-drained, light-textured soil in areas of full sunlight. They prefer areas with sparse vegetation and no mulch such as edges along lawns, sidewalks, driveways, golf courses and garden beds. They also burrow in landscape features such as retaining walls, garden planters and under porches. Note: Without a wasp sighting, some homeowners mistake cicada killer wasp burrows for rodent burrows.

Cicada killer burrow evidenced by half-inch entrance hole and loose soil excavated.

Burrow of a cicada killer wasp as evidenced by half-inch to one-inch diameter entrance hole and a mass of loose soil. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

Unless you’re a cicada, cicada killer wasps are very docile and want nothing to do with you. They are not aggressive towards humans and won’t defend their nests, but may sting if stepped on or handled. Only the female wasps possess a stinger, which is used to paralyze prey. Once the cicada is incapacitated, it is taken back to the burrow, where she lays an egg on it so her larvae have a food source. One burrow may be provisioned with several cicadas, each with a future wasps that will emerge from the ground as an adult the following summer.

The male cicada killer wasps are much smaller than the females, but they will fly erratically and hover around humans, patrolling the area and acting pretty fierce. They are territorial and do not live long after mating. They are incapable of stinging and therefore harmless.

Cicada killer wasps with paralyzed cicada.

Cicada killer female wasp has paralyzed a cicada with her stinger. She will take it to her burrow underground. Photo by Jody Green, Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.

Cicada killers are considered beneficial insects and usually disappear in the fall. If the nesting area becomes a problem, the infested area can be treated with an insecticide labeled for use on wasps. Always read the label directions for correct application and follow any safety precautions. Be sure to treat the area in the evening, when wasps are not active and wear appropriate protective clothing. After several days of inactivity, backfill the burrow with soil.

For information about social wasps in Nebraska please see our July 2016 Issue of NebLine

Please go to UNL Department of Entomology to see more pictures of cicada killer wasps.

Keep calm and respect the critters,

Jody

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