Figure 1. Cicada killer wasp. Photo by Amanda Bachmann.
Profile & Behavior
Cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) are active now and attracting a lot of attention due to their large size and fearsome appearance (Figure 1). The adult wasps can range in size from 1.5 to 2 inches in length and have a reddish-brown thorax (area directly behind the head), and black abdomen with yellow banded markings. The female cicada killer wasps dig tunnels in areas of bare, sandy soil. These conditions often exist near garages, patios, sidewalks, retaining walls, and in playgrounds.
These are solitary wasps – one female will dig and provision her eggs alone. However, there may be multiple wasps using the same general area of suitable habitat. Female cicada killers hunt cicadas or other large insects. Once caught, the wasp paralyzes her prey and carries it back to her nest where she will lay an egg on it, before sealing off the chamber. When the egg hatches, it will consume the cicada, spin a cocoon, and overwinter. Warranting suitable environmental conditions, new adult cicada killer wasps will emerge from the area during the following year.
Many people want to know how to kill these wasps, because of their size and habit of nesting close to areas of human activity. These wasps look deadly, but in reality they are very rarely aggressive towards people. Male cicada killers can be territorial, but they lack a stinger and are thus incapable of causing pain.
If cicada killers are nesting in an undesirable location, the long-term solution is to amend that habitat. As long as an area remains bare, with loose or sandy soil, it has a high chance of being utilized by subsequent generations of cicada killer wasps.