Forestry & Wildlife
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Murder hornet? Or cicada killer wasp? Most people have never heard of a cicada killer wasp. However, it is unlikely to forget the moment when you see one for the first time. An Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist said these large wasps often cause alarm for their size—as they are one of the largest flying insects in the state.
Cicada Killer Identification
Eastern cicada killers, scientifically known as Sphecius speciosus, is the largest species of wasp in Alabama. These insects are also referred to as cicada hawks and known for preying on – you guessed it – cicadas.
Their size, transparent amber color wings and black abdomens featuring three uneven and jagged yellow bands are distinct characteristics of cicada killer wasps. At a quick glance they are easily mistaken for hornets. These wasps can measure from one to a whopping two inches in length.
Habitat and Prey
“Cicada killers are solitary digger wasps, meaning they will build nests in the ground and hunt prey to feed their young,” said Xing Ping Hu, Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist. “Adults will typically emerge in summer and die off in October or even late September.”
Females, which are typically larger than males, are commonly seen skimming around lawns and trees seeking burrow sites and hunting cicadas. Their burrows are characteristic of soil piles accumulated around nest entrances.
Nests are typically made in areas with full sun exposure and little vegetation. These homes can reach depths of 10 to 20 inches and contain up to 16 individual chambers. Be sure to monitor any window boxes, flower beds or planters as these insects may nest in these areas.
Adults feed on flower nectar and drink tree sap. The menu of choice for cicada killer larvae are dog-day cicadas, which feed on deciduous trees. This means that the cicada hawk is a beneficial insect by regulating populations of cicadas.
They attack their prey in-flight in mid-air by delivering a sting. The cicada is then immobilized and carried back to the burrow cells. The female lays one egg on the paralyzed cicada and seals the cell. When the egg hatches, the larvae will slowly consume their meal.
Will they sting me?
It may be hard to believe that a wasp of such size rarely stings humans. In fact, male cicada killers do not have the ability to sting at all. Females do the hunting and have the potential to deliver a blow.
“Though they look terrible, cicada killers are not aggressive and rarely sting,” Hu said.
There are not many options when it comes to controlling populations of cicada hawks. One of the best techniques is to mitigate habitat.
Since this species of wasp prefers little vegetation and sunlight, keep the lawn around your home properly fertilized. This will increase density, taking away ideal locations for wasp digging sites.
Chemical application is technically on the table as a control method. However, since the wasp nest in ground holes, spraying can be labor-intensive. There is also no guarantee that the wasps won’t return each year if the habitat remains ideal for cicada killers. Hu said as always, homeowners should follow the appropriate directions on any insecticide product.
Cicada killer wasps will not hurt humans if they’re left alone. Take the necessary measures to protect your property from being their future home.
For more information on cicada hawks and many other flying insect species, visit the Alabama Extension website at www.aces.edu.