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Aug. 09, 2010

Giant Cicada Killer Wasp

by Carl Flatow

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Talk about beneficial insects!

Last week I had the treat of witnessing the results of an amazing aerial feat. About 5 feet from me, out of the sky, a large mass of insect drama came rumbling to the ground. As I watched the giant cicada killer clutching and stinging it’s prey I actually gasped. I had not even know these beasts existed before, yet several days later my neighbor was complaining to me about mounds of dirt he was finding in his lawn, next to the hole of some burrowing animal.

As it turned out these two events were related. As described in the local Cooperative Extension fact sheet, “The wasps catch cicadas by paralyzing them with their sting and use them as food for their developing offspring: the adults feed on flower nectar. Once the cicada is paralyzed, the wasp drags it up a tree or post to gain height so it can fly back to its burrow. The wasp may have to do this several times with each cicada.”

Wasps dig holes in lawns, kicking out a large horse- shoe-shaped pile of dirt around the nest entrance. The burrow is about 38mm (1-1/2″) in diameter and may be 15 to 25cm (6-10″) deep and 30 to 45cm (12-18″) long. At the end of the burrow are three or four cells. One or two cicadas are placed in each cell; one egg is laid on a cicada in each cell. Several wasps will frequently make individual burrows in one location….”

These beneficial, predatory insects are a natural control for cicadas. They should be left alone and allowed to do their job – reducing the cicada population….”

The cicada killer is a very large, robust wasp about 30 to 40mm (1-1/8″ to 1-5/8″) long. While the dirt mounds they produce can be a nuisance and their ominous size intimidating, these wasps are actually quite docile. They only sting when grabbed or threatened. Cicada killer wasps are the only known natural enemy of the cicada.”

Ain’t nature grand!

About Carl Flatow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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