Cicada Killers – there are eastern and western species – are very big wasps, with the larger females reaching four centimeters. When the slightly smaller males gather in “leks” of dozens of individuals, all buzzing around and defending small territories, the effect is intimidating. These insects are truly frightening to folks who don’t know what they are, but rest assured for all their size and hectic activity, they are sheep in wolves’ clothing.
Like all bees and wasps, male Cicada Killers cannot sting, although if handled they may bluff with a false stinger than cannot break the skin. Females can sting, but must be strongly provoked or stepped on. I’ve spent lots of time observing and photographing Cicada Killers in the midst of a busy congregation and never been stung – although I was a little creeped out when they landed on my back. In any event, the sting is very weak, bearing the punch of a mere pin prick, with any discomfort diminishing within an hour. Reports of painful stings inevitably turn out to be similar-looking hornets or wasps. Cicada Killers are no threat except to sensitive allergic people.
Cicada Killers emerge from burrows up to three feet deep at the same time as cicadas begin their own above-ground chorus. Favored spots are in loose or sandy soil on gentle slopes with little vegetation. Trees or woodlots which harbor cicadas are always fairly close by. Cicada Killers are not social wasps, but tend to be found in aggregations where suitable habitat patches are located.
Male Cicada Killers emerge first, and await the females. Females hunt cicadas and bring them to burrows they have constructed; they possess large spurs on their hind legs for shoveling soil out the entrance hole. While female Cicada Killers are large, cicadas are larger and heavier. Several times I have heard a cicada song sputter, followed by a buzzy, struggling ball crashing to through the leaves, ending with a big commotion in the undergrowth: a female Cicada Killer subduing her prey. I’ve watched as she dragged her paralyzed quarry to a sturdy weed stalk, sometimes several feet away, hauled herself and the cicada up the stalk, finally taking flight with the cicada clutched underneath her.
In each nest chamber of a burrow, female Cicada Killers place either one cicada on which an unfertilized egg is laid (this produces a male) or two cicadas and a fertilized egg (these will be females). They lay about a hundred eggs in a season, most of which will be males.
In less than three weeks after they emerge, males die; females live another week or two. Underfoot, cicada killer larvae slowly consume their rations. It will be another year before a new generation appears, intriguing some of us, and fooling others to fear them.
Please don’t molest a colony of cicada killers. They are only dangerous to cicadas.