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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Cicada Killer

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

It was a clash of the titans, initiated by the head-on collision of the killer causing its prey to scream out with a loud, buzzing screech! These two giants of their respected families battle it out every summer here in the Midwest portion of the United States. However, the outcome is solely one-sided, the aptly titled Eastern ‘Cicada-killer’ (Sphecius speciosus) [CK, for short] is always the undisputed champ. My first encounter with this little beastie as a child was one of awe and fear of possibly getting stung by such a huge wasp! Curiosity allowed me to find out that Big is not Bad, rather, that Gentle is the Giant! My trusty stick taught me fact from fiction. It was an extension of my arm that allowed me to touch an unknown critter and see its reaction. Today, my offering was more like a greeting as the wasp gratefully clamored up with its prey, paused and flew off. “I was hooked!”

The first thing you notice is the size of this wasp, females can reach nearly 4cm (just over 1.5 inches) in length! Its black abdomen constitutes over half of it, which is beautifully marked with three, light yellow irregular bands, each one thickening as it advances towards the midsection. The intricate design looks like a piece of Native American pottery. Here the brown thorax is split in two by a thick pumpkin-orange band.

Its underside hosts three pairs of yellow-orange legs. A pair of black segmented antenna sprout just forward of large, amber-colored eyes. The base segment of the antennae is also a bright orange. A pair of veined, translucent wings cover the body like an ambered colored cloak. The Western and Pacific CK’s (Sphecius grandis and convallis) are nearly identical but have deeper yellow bands that are splayed over a red abdomen.

Around mid-summer, from their underground lairs, the males emerge first and females shortly thereafter; timing it with that of the cicada’s emergence. First order of business, search for a suitable nesting site – grassy, pasture-like areas, which might include your

front lawn!

Do not be alarmed, as I pointed out earlier, these gentle giants are not aggressive; you basically have to step on a female or harass the hell out of her and then she will, “Let you have it!” Males protect the entrance of the burrow via intimidation, e.g., flying circles

around you or hovering in your face. They cannot sting, their abdomen terminates into a sharp, pointy tip that resembles a stinger.

One morning I came across what I thought was a ‘grubbing patch’- the results of a skunk digging in search of grubs. The ground looked as if someone was practicing chip shots with a pitching wedge. Close observation revealed an assemblage of burrows radiating out across the field. I thought a small mouse might have been the excavator; having cleared a thick furrow of soil leading to the entrance.

These underground tunnels can extend up to six feet at around ten inches in depth. Side chambers branch out from either side and once she completes this nursery, it is time to, “Hunt for cicadas!”

Cicada’s resonating across the neighborhood indeed do symbolize the ‘dog days’ of summer. Their songs blare out from the surrounding forest preserves - after all, these are the loudest insects in the world!

I assumed this was how the CK’s homed in on the bug’s location. “Nyet!” They cruise around visually checking every branch or trunk and once found, she immediately pounces and delivers a paralyzing sting. The cicada will buzz in protest and often the pair falls to the ground. The CK instinctively drags her prey upside down, between her legs, back to the nest should it be nearby. Otherwise, she must climb back up, with this additional payload, in order to take-off and glide back to the nursery.

Some maneuvering may be required to fit the bulky cargo through the entrance.

Once underground a chamber is chosen, the cicada is inserted (sometimes with an additional one or two), a single egg is laid on the insect, then the chamber is sealed. The following may seem gruesome, consequently, after several days the larva will hatch, chew its way into the still living cicada and consume it from the inside out. It then overwinters in a cocoon, pupates, to emerge mid-summer, starting the cycle once again.

Watching a CK cruise in with its parcel has to expend a lot of energy; each time one arrives rapid respiration ensues as evident of her pulsating abdomen; imagine, repeating this process a dozen times or more!

A quick energy, high caloric food source comes in the form plant juices and nectar. I cannot help reflecting on my encounter with a Tarantula Hawk (Pepsis thisbe). It is an even larger solitary wasp, up to 5cm or 2 inches, that has the same behaviors except that it searches dry scrub and desert habitats in search of its prey, tarantulas! The difference is that physics does not allow this creature to get airborne with its victim. It drags the paralyzed spider, often from the mouth to an awaiting den, lays an egg, where the same scenario unfolds. *

Next afternoon has me hastily pedaling my bike to the CK nesting site. I just miss one taking off a few feet in front of me. Meandering through the field I find a couple of males defending their nests. One proceeds to fly towards me and veers off to one side before getting too close.

Slowly I approach the other sentinel, he vigilantly maintains his ground, shifting position each time I move.

A female drops nearby, a cicada in her grasp, her abdomen pulsates steadily. Pausing several times, readjusts her grip and then follows the U-shaped path to the entrance, and eventually disappears underground.

I wait for her to exit but she pauses at the entrance to her den. “Wow!” to see those compound eyes hidden in the shadows can be rather daunting.

I stumble across a pair of CK’s wrestling over a cicada, I think? Perhaps these two are sharing some of the chambers (which is not unusual) where one female arrived with its cargo as the other is innately responding to its food source? I cannot say for sure, but interesting just the same.

Another odd observation has a paralyzed cicada lying at the doorstep, as it were. Again, the female might simply be clearing access inside the tomb or one of the vaults? Still, the insect looks so forlorn, you almost feel repentant knowing its fate.

Cruising in formation like two fighter jets, are a pair of male CK’s.

Higher up another CK with prey glides across in the distance; she crash lands and I scurry over but see no sign of any burrow; she looks exhausted. I wait a bit then squat down to lend her a hand, literally, and she climbs on board. I raise my arm; she appears to get her bearings then launches herself into the air. I perform this act multiple times and with every departure comes the same exhilaration of having experienced such a moment like this. Keep your eyes and ears in tune with your surroundings and perhaps someday, you can do the same.

*Check out my blog “T-Hawk!” for a fun-filled trip with this creature.

Here are a couple of websites to get you started:

Location: Cook County, Illinois – USA Date: August of 2011

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