Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) - Wiki
Cicada killer wasp
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[Photo] An adult female Sphecius speciosus compared to a nickel. Adult female Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp (a.k.a. Sand Hornet) Size comparison next to a nickel. Date 2007-08-22. Author Adaria
Cicada killer wasps are large, solitary wasps in the family Crabronidae. The name may be applied to any species of Crabronid which uses cicadas as prey, though it is typically applied to a single North American species, Sphecius speciosus, often simply referred to as "The Cicada killer". However, since there are multiple species of related wasps, it is more appropriate to call it the Eastern Cicada Killer. This species occurs in the eastern and midwest U.S. and southwards into Mexico and Central America. They are so named because they hunt cicadas and provision their nests with them. In North America they are sometimes called Sand Hornets, although they are not hornets, which belong to the family Vespidae.
Adult cicada killer wasps are large, 1.5 to 5 cm (2/3 to 2 inches) long, robust wasps with reddish and black areas on the thorax (middle part), and are black to reddish brown marked with light yellow stripes on the abdominal (rear) segments. The wings are brownish. Coloration may superficially resemble that of yellowjackets or hornets. The females are somewhat larger than the males, and both are among the largest wasps seen in the Eastern United States, their unusual size giving them a uniquely fearsome appearance. European hornets (Vespa crabro) are often mistaken for cicada killers.
Life cycle and habits
Solitary wasps (such as the Cicada killer) are very different in their behavior from the social wasps such as hornets, yellowjackets, and paper wasps. Cicada killer females use their sting to paralyze their prey (cicadas) rather than to defend their nests. Adults feed on flower nectar and other plant sap exudates.
Adults emerge in summer, typically beginning around late June or early July and continuing throughout the summer months. They are present in a given area for 60 to 75 days, until mid-September. The large females are commonly seen in mid-to-late summer skimming around lawns, shrubs and trees searching for cicadas.
The males are more often seen in groups, vigorously challenging one another for the territory surrounding a female burrow, and generally pursuing anything that moves or flies within close proximity. It is not unusual to see two or three male wasps locked together in midair manual combat, the aggregate adopting an erratic and uncontrolled flight path until one of the wasps breaks off the attack. The male wasp's aggressive behavior is extremely similar to that of another robust insect of the area, the male carpenter bee. In each case, while the males' bombastic territorial defense can prove extremely frightening and intimidating to human passersby, the males pose no danger whatsoever. They will only grapple with other insects, and possess no stinging capacity.
This ground-burrowing wasp may be found in well-drained, sandy soils to loose clay in bare or grass-covered banks, berms, hills as well as raised sidewalks, driveways and patio slabs. Females may share a burrow, digging their own nest cells off of the main tunnel. A burrow is 15 to 25 cm (6 - 10 in.) deep and about 3 cm (1.5 in.) wide. The female dislodges the soil with her jaws and pushes loose soil behind her as she backs out of the burrow using her hind legs, which are equipped with special spines. The excess soil pushed out of the burrow forms a mound with a trench in it at the burrow entrance. Cicada killers may nest in planters, window boxes, flower beds or under shrubs, ground cover, etc. Nests often are made in the full sun where vegetation is sparse, especially in well-drained soils.
After digging a nest chamber in the burrow, female cicada killers capture cicadas, paralyzing them with a sting; the cicadas then serve as food to rear their young. After paralyzing a cicada, the female wasp straddles it and takes off toward her burrow; this return flight to the burrow is difficult for the wasp because the cicada is twice her weight. After putting the cicada in the nest cell, the female deposits an egg on the cicada and closes the cell with dirt. Male eggs are laid on a single cicada but female eggs are given two or sometimes three cicadas; this is because the female wasp is twice as large as the male and must have more food. New nest cells are dug as necessary off of the main burrow tunnel and a single burrow may eventually have 10 to 20 cells. The egg hatches in one or two days, and the cicadas serve as food for the grub. The larvae complete their development in about 2 weeks. Overwintering occurs as a mature larva within an earth-coated cocoon. Pupation occurs in the nest cell in the spring and lasts 25 to 30 days. There is only one generation per year and no adults overwinter.
This wasp is frequently attacked by the parasitic "velvet ant" wasp, Dasymutilla occidentalis, also known as the "cow-killer" wasp. It lays an egg in the nest cell of the cicada killer, and when the cicada killer larva pupates, the parasitoid larva consumes the pupa.
Interaction with humans
While they may be frightfully large, female cicada killer wasps are not aggressive and rarely sting unless they are grasped roughly, stepped upon with bare feet, or caught in clothing, etc. Males aggressively defend their perching areas on nesting sites against rival males but they have no sting. Although they appear to attack anything which moves near their territories, male cicada killers are actually investigating anything which might be a female cicada killer ready to mate. Such close inspection appears to many people to be an attack, but the wasps rarely even land on people. If handled roughly females will sting, and males will jab with a sharp spine on the tip of their abdomen. Both sexes appear to be well equipped to bite, as they have large jaws; however, they are unable to grasp human skin and cannot bite. They are non-aggressive towards humans and fly away when swatted at, instead of attacking. Cicada killers exert a natural control on cicada populations and thus may directly benefit the deciduous trees upon which cicadas feed.
Other cicada killer wasps
The North American cicada killer wasps all belong to the genus Sphecius, of which there are 21 species worldwide. The remaining three cicada-killing species in North America are:
Sphecius convallis (Patton, 1879), the Pacific Cicada Killer, occurs in the western U.S. and in Mexico.
Sphecius grandis (Say, 1824) the Western Cicada Killer, occurs in the mid- and western U.S. and in Mexico.
Sphecius hogardii (Latreille,1806), the Caribbean Cicada Killer, occurs in the U.S. in Florida and in the Caribbean.
There is also a South American cicada killer, Sphecius spectabilis (Taschenberg, 1875).
Many other cicada killer wasp species are found in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. There are also several other genera of cicada killers, e.g. Liogorytes in South America and, in Australia, genus Exeirus. The Australian species is:
Exeirus lateritius (Shuckard, 1838), and it occurs in the Murray-Darling Basin, the Australian mainland's south-east coast, and Tasmania.
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