A Community of Killers
Cicada killers are solitary. This means that each female wasp excavates her own nest. Many wasps may burrow in the same area, creating the impression that they are giant, social yellowjackets or hornets. Male cicada killers, while incapable of stinging, will drive off other males, other insects, even birds as they seek mating opportunities with females. They sit on the ground, or foliage, rocks, or other objects that give them a somewhat elevated perch from which to survey their territory. Watch them cock their heads alertly at the passing of other wasps.
The female digs her burrow before she starts hunting. The tunnel extends up to three feet, at a depth of two feet. Individual cells branch off near the end of this shaft. Each “room” will host one of her offspring.
The Cicada Killer Life Cycle
Cicada killers are strong. A wasp may fly directly from the scene of the crime back to her burrow, carrying her prey beneath her. Sometimes the journey is accomplished in stages, gliding from the tree to the ground, up another vertical object to launch another short flight, and so on until she gets home. She has to hurry: birds often harass cicada killers into dropping their prey.
She dives down the entrance to her burrow, hauling her prize to one of the underground cells. One cicada is enough to grow a future male cicada killer, but a baby (larval) female cicada killer needs to eat at least two cicadas, sometimes three. The mother wasp lays a single egg on the last cicada put into a cell. When all cells are filled, she fills the nest entrance and leaves permanently.
Both male and female cicada killer wasps feed on substances rich in sugars and carbohydrates to fuel their energetic activities. Look for them on flowers where they sip nectar. Also look for them eating oozing, fermenting sap on the trunks of trees. Some of the images shown here depict this behavior. I even gently nudged one of the big female wasps into a better position while I was taking pictures.
Nothing to Fear
Solitary wasps will not sting unless physically molested, or you step on one in bare feet. Male wasps may behave aggressively, but they lack a stinger.
Sources: Holliday, Charles. 2012. “Biology of Cicada Killer Wasps,” Prof. Chuck Holliday’s www Page at Lafayette College.
O’Neill, Kevin M. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates (Cornell University Press). 406 pp.
Shapiro, Leo, et al. 2012. “Sphecius speciosus: Eastern Cicada Killer,” Encyclopedia of Life.