Cicada Killer Wasps

The cicada killer wasp is one wasp that shouldn’t be feared by humans. Granted, some wasps are scary, particularly because we know their stings can be ferociously painful.  Then, too, the size of the cicada killer wasp is intimidating—the female is two inches long and the male is 1 ½ inches. These wasps, however, are really quite docile and live in harmony with humans.

The cicada killer wasp gets its name because, you guessed it, it kills cicadas.  Cicadas are those loud buzzing insects we hear in the late afternoon and early evening hours.  The cicada killer wasp needs access to dry, open soil in order to dig tunnels.  These tunnels and subsequently the cicadas they catch are not for their own use but to ensure a safe and productive home for their progeny.

The cicada killer wasp’s stinger has one main use.  It will sting cicadas, paralyzing them, so they can be carried to the wasp’s tunnel.  This is no easy task, considering the size of the cicada, but luckily the strength of the cicada killer wasp is up to the task. The female wasp then lays an egg on the cicada.  Once the egg hatches, the wasp larva begins to feed on the paralyzed cicada, starting with the least important organs (so the cicada remains alive) and finishing with the most important organs as it reaches pupation. One wasp tunnel will have multiple cells, each consisting of a cicada (or two) and an egg.

The cicada killer wasp is unquestionably docile around humans.  Beside my front doorstep is an area where cicada killer wasps have been busy digging a tunnel. They are truly amazing to watch.  Once I inadvertently stepped into the flying path of the female wasp and she just calmly flew around me!

Between males and females, the male cicada killer wasp can be territorial but does not possess a stinger, so it can’t sting you.  If their tunneling activity is not wanted, simply watering the areas of dry soil is an effective way to get them to find another spot.  More information may be found here:  https://communityenvironment.unl.edu/pest-month-cicada-killer .

Kathleen Cue
Horticulture Educator at Nebraska Extension
Kathleen serves as the Horticulture Educator for Nebraska Extension in Dodge County. She educates people on making smart plant choices to reduce use of fertilizers and pesticides in their landscape which has a positive impact on air, water, soil and environmental quality, property values and people’s pocketbooks.

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