I think the first time I saw specimens of the Steel Blue Cricket Hunter, Chlorion aerarium, was in the collection at Oregon State University in about 1979. I remember being somewhat surprised that the species even occurred in that state, but here it was, all impressive in metallic teal. The specimens dated back at least a couple of decades or so, but I hoped I could eventually find specimens myself.
This magnificent wasp is frequently confused with the Blue Mud Dauber which I wrote about last week. Both are in the family Sphecidae, and indeed they can sometimes be difficult to tell apart in the field, especially the males. Chlorion aerarium is generally a significantly larger wasp, much brighter in color (though a deep metallic violet blue in much of eastern North America), and less hairy than the Blue Mud Dauber. The antennae of Chlorion originate lower on the face, and the mandible has a single tooth (the mandible of Chalybion is simple). Obviously, one can’t easily examine live specimens at close range to note those more subtle characters. Not without getting painfully stung, anyway.
The Steel Blue Cricket Hunter is so named because the solitary females hunt crickets of the family Gryllidae as prey. Watch for the females scouring the ground and peering into nooks and crannies in search of crickets. Once she locates one, she stings it into weak paralysis and flies it or carries it to a simple burrow she excavated previously. She sometimes chooses to dig her own burrow from inside the entrance of a cicada killer burrow, oddly enough.
The burrow may terminate in more than one cell (multicellular burrows may even be the norm). The female places several crickets in each cell, closing the cell with a plug of soil between forays. A single egg is laid on one of the victims. The larva that hatches then consumes the cache of crickets.
Both genders fuel their frenetic activity mostly on fermenting plant sap oozing from wounded shrubs. That is certainly the case here in Arizona where they can congregate by the dozens on oozing Desert Broom plants (Baccharis sarothroides). All of my images here are from such circumstances. Only rarely does this wasp visit flowers for nectar.
While I have found this species to be common and widespread over most of the United States and adjacent southern Canada, I still remember well my first encounters with them back in The Dalles, Oregon, in the Columbia River Gorge. I actually took a Greyhound bus from Portland to explore the sandy high desert habitat there and found many species of wasps. A railroad bed ran near the river, among tall grasses, mountain ash trees, and an overabundance of poison oak. It was in this area that I found many male Chlorion flitting among the poison oak.
Emerging from the tall grass at the very edge of the railroad tracks I saw a female on the ground. She shined like a living jewel, her body in vivid metallic blue with shimmering blue and violet wings that flicked nervously as she searched for prey.
The following autumn at Oregon State I took my specimens to my mentor, the late Dr. George Ferguson, eagerly awaiting his expert opinion. He initially concluded they were merely Blue Mud Daubers. I confessed I was disappointed, having thought they were Chlorion. Dr. Ferguson then put one under his microscope and said “By golly, you’re right! They’re awful small, though.” What music to my ears to be validated by someone I greatly admire to this day.
Common as a given insect might be, there is still a thrill in discovering it for oneself, and if this blog accomplishes nothing else than to nudge a reader into the field in search of his or her own Moby Dick, then I cannot ask for more. Go, find the “bug” of your own dreams, and tell everyone else about it, too.