Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp

Facts, Identification & Control

Scientific Name

Sphecius speciosus

Appearance

Adults are very large, approximately 2 inches long. The abdomen, the portion of the body immediately behind the insect’s “thread-waist,” is black with yellow markings on three segments. Their six legs are pale red to orange and the wings are a shaded- brown color. Male cicada killer wasps are two times smaller than females. People often mistake European hornets for cicada killers.

cicada killer image

Behavior, Diet & Habits

Since cicada killers don’t live in colonies and they build their nests underground, they are considered solitary wasps. The cicada killer’s life cycle begins as a grub-like larva that has spent the winter in the protection of the burrow dug by the female wasp the previous year. In the spring, the grub changes into the pupal stage, which is then followed by the emergence of adults in the early summer or late spring. After adult emergence, the female feeds, mates and sets out making burrows to house her offspring. Some of the likely burrowing sites are lawns; edges of concrete slabs; sparsely vegetated slopes and sandy areas around playground equipment; and golf course sand traps. The burrow may seem pretty simple on the surface, but there is a lot of construction done below ground. The burrow is dug about a foot deep with cells for the eggs that will become the next generation of cicada killers. Other than seeing a cicada killer, which is an awesome, somewhat daunting site, the presence of excavated soil in the shape of a “U” at the burrow entrance means a cicada killer construction project is in progress. Upon completion of the cells, the female begins hunting for cicadas or other insects that will become food for the larva in each cell. Once she finds the prey, she stings and paralyzes it, flies back to the burrow and lays one egg on the prey insect. After egg laying, the female pushes the prey into each egg chamber and seals the chamber. In about 2-4 days the egg hatches and the newly hatched larva feeds on the prey for about 1-2 weeks. After feeding is completed, the larva builds a silk cocoon and prepares to overwinter. There is only one generation of cicada killers each year. After mating, the males die. The females die after completing their work laying eggs and providing food for the eggs that will hatch into larvae. While alive, adults will feed on flower nectar and more commonly on fermented sap from trees and other large plants in their habitat.

More Information

Male cicada killers do not sting. While the females can sting, they are not aggressive and sting only in very rare instances by injecting very mild venom that is far less painful than the sting of many social wasps, like yellow jackets. The perceived danger of the cicada killers, while exaggerated, is a real issue that homeowners and managers of public places must consider. These insects look vicious and dangerous, so people will describe seeing a cicada killer in terms like, “the biggest yellow jacket I’ve ever seen in my life!” Therefore, control is sometimes necessary. Since these insects are not likely to sting, the homeowner may elect to apply an insecticidal dust in and around the burrow entrance when first noticing cicada killer activity in the soil. When choosing to use insecticides, always read and carefully follow the product’s label directions. If there is a heavy population located in a sensitive, public area, the best thing to do is contact your pest management professional for their service.