Never fear, even though cicada killers are here!

Fast Facts

  • Cicada killers are some of the largest insects that live in Nebraska, female wasps are typically 2 inches long. Males are 1.5 inches.
  • Female cicada killers are equipped with a stinger that they use to inject venom into a cicada they catch and then lay their eggs on top of. They also have spurs on their back legs to help them dig tunnels, where they bury the cicadas.
  • Male cicada killers do not have a stinger, instead they have a non-functioning pseudostinger. They will watch areas of female activity though and may fly towards people to inspect them.
  • Cicada killers will not attach you and pose little hazard as a stinging pest. They can damage landscapes and in the short term, insecticidal dusts like carbaryl may drive off cicada killers. Long-term, renovations to the landscape are the solution that must be considered.

Description

Cicada killer wasps are large insects, females are typically 2 inches in length and males 1.5. Both sexes are dark orange in color on the head and thorax and transition into black on the abdomen. There are three prominent light yellow stripes on the abdomen. Their legs and wings usually have an orange tinge to them. If you look closely at the last pair of legs on a female wasp you will also notice long spur like organs that they dig with.

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A comparison of a male and female cicada (Photo by Jody Green; Nebraska Extension)

Life cycle

In late June and early July, male wasps emerge and wait for females to arrive. Mating occurs and then females prep their nests. They dig tunnels 12-15 inches below ground in loose, dry soil and can make them up to 36 inches long. Females are also powerful flyers and they catch cicadas on the wing. They will sting their quarry and paralyze them, then take the cicada back to their tunnel. Usually they have to drag it back to their nest. Once the cicadas are in the hole the female lays an egg that will hatch and the larvae will feed on the paralyzed cicadas. The larvae prolong the life of their food by eating the least important organs first and the most important last. Male eggs get one cicada and female eggs get two to three. Much like a mason bee, the female will construct multiple cells in each burrow. Once the nest is full the female will seal the entrances and the eggs will hatch. Larvae develop over two weeks and they spend the winter as a larva in a cocoon then pupate in the spring and emerge as adults.

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A female cicada killer preparing her burrow (photo by Jim Kalisch; UNL Entomology)

Control

While these insects are not a sting hazard, they do frighten some people. The males in particular can be territorial and fly towards your face. Remember that they do not have a true stinger and only bear a pseudostinger. All buzz and no sting essentially. In years with high numbers, cicada killers can damage lawns as they dig their tunnels. If control is desired there are very specific methods of achieving it. Renovating the portion of your landscape that is infested by watering it, changing the soil, or fixing cracks in retaining walls can all minimize the attractiveness of your yard. It may sound comical, but a tennis or badminton racket is also an effective control tool through swatting the large wasps. In terms of insecticides, applications of carbaryl dust (Sevin) or cyflutrhin (Tempo) made directly into the burrow entrances can be effective.  Broadcast sprays of liquid insecticides over the area where cicada killers are nesting are not likely to reduce their population. Applications should be made at dusk, when the wasps are the least active.

Jonathan Larson
Nebraska Extension Entomology Educator at Nebraska Extension
Jonathan Larson is focused on providing Nebraskans with information regarding insects that may impact their lives. He can help to identify any insect or arachnid pest you find in your home or landscape and provide control tips that are environmentally and economically sustainable.
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