Over the past couple of weeks, I have been getting many phone calls from people describing giant wasps in their yards. These have turned out to be the Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus), which is a mild mannered wasp. The stinger on the female wasp is used to paralyze cicadas and the male has no stinger.
The adult cicada killer is an impressive looking wasp measuring up to 1.5 inches in length. Their distinguishing characteristics beyond their size is the black abdomen with three complex, yellow bands, and the head and thorax are rust colored to dark brown with wings that are a transparent russet. The only other wasp that approaches the size of the cicada killer is the European hornet, but their abdomen has more yellow and banding pattern is different.
Why do cicada killers choose a particular site to live? These solitary wasps prefer well-drained, lighter-textured soils in full sunlight near trees with an abundance of cicadas. The female in the middle of the summer is busy digging long burrows up to 0.75 inch in diameter and 40 inches in length. In the burrow, the female will lay up to 15 eggs, each one in its own separate chamber. In the chamber with the egg, the female will drag up to three paralyzed cicadas for the young larvae to feed on.
Cicada killers are beneficial, because they hunt cicadas in the genus Tibicen. Cicadas feed on deciduous trees and damage tree branches by laying eggs in them.
During her lifetime, a female will excavate up to four burrows; and gather at least 100 cicadas during the summer. Cicada killers are only active for about three weeks out of the year digging burrows and laying eggs.
While cicada killers make a loud, buzzing noise and have the striking colors of black and yellow, all this is to discourage predators that might see them as a tasty meal. The female will only use her stinger to defend herself.This insect can become a nuisance with their burrowing activities, especially if large numbers of cicada killers establish in one area. To discourage them, keep areas of well-drained, loose soil or sand to a minimum. If cicada killers begin digging in sand boxes or around newly planted plants, thorough drench these areas with water since this insect does not like wet soil.