Welcome to "Wasp Wednesday." The wasp family Ichneumonidae is one of the most diverse in the order Hymenoptera, especially in the largely temperate climate of North America. Many species look superficially alike, even if they belong to different genera. One of the few species I can usually identify in the field is Ceratogastra ornata, which I still often mistake for a spider wasp anyway.
This wasp is well-named, for it is ornately patterned with yellow and reddish brown or black, depending on the geographic location where one finds them. In fact, four subspecies are recognized. Collectively, they are distributed from southern Ontario, Massachusetts, and southern Wisconsin west to eastern California and south to northern Florida, Louisiana, and Mexico.
Specimens from the northern reaches of the species’ range are generally darker, including the wings, with reduced yellow markings. Specimens from farther south and west, like the one shown here from Colorado Springs, are distinctly paler.
It has been suggested that this wasp is a mimic of stinging spider wasps in the genus Poecilopompilus. Indeed, the similarities in color and pattern are striking, though the spider wasps are slightly larger than the ichneumon's 10-12 millimeter body length in most cases. Here in Colorado Springs, I found another spider wasp, Ceropales, to be a potential model for the ichneumon.
How do you tell the ichneumon wasp from the spider wasp it mimics? Look at the antennae for one clue. Ichneumon wasps have many, short antennal segments while spider wasps have far fewer, and longer, segments. Wing venation offers other characters, but one seldom gets a good look. Images of ichneumons may capture the “horse head” cell near the middle of the front wing, the horse’s “nose” pointed toward the wingtip.
Look for Ceratogastra ornata visiting flowers, especially composites. They are not only seeking nectar, but hosts for their larval offspring as well. You might see a wasp that appears to be stinging a flower bud, but this behavior is aimed at the eggs of a moth instead.
Details are sketchy, but apparently females of some moths in the genus Feltia (family Noctuidae, the owlet moths) lay their eggs in certain flowers. The caterpillars that hatch then migrate to the ground where they finish their life cycle as subterranean “cutworms.” The ichneumon wasp intercepts the egg stage, or newly-hatched caterpillar, injecting her own egg into the host. Her larva lives as an internal parasite of the caterpillar, likely letting it mature before feeding in earnest and ultimately dooming its host.
I have personally witnessed female Ceratogastra ornata ovipositing in buds of Common Ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia. The entomologist J.C. Bridwell has also observed this, and found them ovipositing in Eupatorium thoroughworts as well. The wasps also visit goldenrod flowers, but are not known to oviposit among the blossoms (Carlson, 2009). The specimen shown here was favoring the extrafloral nectaries of Common Sunflower, Helianthus anuus.
The inability to identify ichneumon wasps to species should not be a barrier to observing them, or even collecting them. We know precious little about the biology and geographic range of the majority of species. Your images, posted to Bugguide.net, could shed light on this interesting group. Bob Carlson, a world authority on Ichneumonidae, often offers his expertise there as well.