The eastern cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus) is a solitary burrowing wasp. One of the largest wasps in eastern North America, the females top out at about 5 cm (2 inches) in length. These beautiful, large wasps are harmless to humans, but deadly to cicadas.
The female catches and stings adult cicadas. The sting paralyses, but doesn’t kill the cicada. The wasp then takes her immobilized prey to her underground burrow where she lays eggs on them. Male eggs get one cicada each, and female eggs get two or three cicadas (because females are bigger and need more food to reach adulthood). The eggs hatch out, and the wasp larvae eat the cicadas.
Cicada killers, looking a lot like giant hornets, strike fear into most people’s hearts. Their behaviour can be frightening, too. Males defend territories from other males, and can be seen fighting one another, grappling in midair. But males have no stinger, so they’re completely harmless to humans. Female cicada killers can theoretically sting, but unlike the social wasps, they don’t sting to defend their nests. You’re only likely to be stung by a cicada killer if you pick it up and squeeze it.
The cicada killer in this photo is a male. His territory is in my mother’s garden, and he is reliably found on a particular plant in the morning sun, sallying forth to challenge other males who get too close.