Cicada Killer: All You Need to Know

In this article, we will talk about the cicada killer, its habitat, feeding habits, lifecycle, and more.

A flying bug that burrows in the ground never fails to generate interest, especially if it’s a large wasp that buzzes around threateningly.

Thankfully, the cicada killer wasp isn’t much of a danger as long as it is left alone.

If you have cicada killer wasps nesting on your property and would like to know more about them, this article is for you.

Read on to find out what they are, whether you should be worried, and how to get rid of them.

Cicada Killer

What Are Cicada Killers?

Also known as the Cicada Hawk, the Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) is a species of large solitary wasps.

As you might guess, their name is inspired by their choice of prey – cicadas.

They belong to the family Crabronidae, or square-headed wasps, which comprises almost 9000 wasp species.

The large size of cicada killers is one of their key identification features. The female cicada killer grows up to 1.5 to 1.75 inches in length.

The males are smaller, growing to a size of 1 to 1.25 inches.

The coloration is very similar to that of a murder hornet—a black body striped with yellow, while the head and some parts of the thorax are a dull red color.

Cicada Killer Types

Interestingly, the exact appearance of Cicada Killers might vary depending on the type. You’d come across four types of cicada killers in the US.

The Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus)

This one is the most commonly found Cicada Killer, often mistaken for European hornets and vice versa. Eastern cicada killers have brownish wings, and the color of the rear segment may vary from black to reddish brown.

The Western Cicada Killer (Sphecius grandis)

Western Cicada Killers are clearly distinguishable from their Eastern cousins due to their brighter colors.

These wasps have amber-red abdomens with yellow markings, as opposed to the dark rear segment found in the Eastern cicada killer.

The Pacific cicada killer (Sphecius convallis)

This type of cicada killer wasp can be found in both Central and North America. Growing up to 1.5 inches, it’s the largest wasp in California.

The Caribbean cicada killer (Sphecius hogardii)

In the US, you’d find the Caribbean cicada killer primarily in Florida and the Caribbean region. They can be further classified into two subspecies – Sphecius hogardii Bahamas and Sphecius hogardii hogardii.

Cicada Killer

What Does a Cicada Killer Eat?

You might find the Cicada Killer’s feeding habits interesting if you aren’t familiar with parasitoid wasps.

This is because, while they are known primarily for hunting cicadas, the wasps don’t eat cicadas themselves.

Instead, the paralyzed cicadas are stored as food for the larvae after the eggs hatch. Adult cicada killer wasps primarily live on flower nectar and other plant juices.

In other words, they start out as carnivores but later switch to a herbivorous diet after pupating.

What Eats Cicada Killers?

Even though cicada killers are formidable predators when it comes to hunting cicadas, they have plenty of natural enemies that, in turn, prey on them.

  • Frogs, salamanders, and several other amphibians are unaffected by wasp stings, which allows them to eat cicada killers with ease.
  • Cicada killers are commonly preyed upon by birds such as warblers, orioles, bluebirds, chickadees, etc.
  • Larger insects like dragonflies, centipedes, praying mantises, hoverflies, and moths eat cicada killers too.
  • These large wasps are also hunted by honey badgers, weasels, bears, mice, bats, and other mammals.

Where Do Cicada Killers Live?

The cicada killer is a bug that digs in the dirt, building a single burrow similar to an underground tunnel. These angled tunnels are about 1 to 1.25 inches wide, two feet deep, and two feet long.

At the bottom, a nest chamber consisting of three or four cells is constructed for the offspring. The wasps may sometimes build additional chambers off the nest tunnel, which means additional egg cells.

Cicada killers are sand wasps, which means they prefer light-textured and well-drained soil with plenty of sunlight.

Cicada Killer Killed at School

Life Cycle of a Cicada Killer

Interestingly, most of a cicada killer’s life is spent developing inside its underground nest. Their life cycle is rather simple, with four distinct stages.

  • Eggs: The females lay their eggs in the cells created in their nest chambers. Each nest cell contains several eggs laid on an immobilized cicada. It takes only two to three days for the larvae to hatch out of the eggs.
  • Larvae: Right after hatching, cicada killer larvae start feeding on the cached prey stored in the nest by their mothers. They first suck out the blood of the immobilized cicadas, later moving on to the other parts.

However, they keep the prey alive till the end by leaving the nervous system intact. It takes them about a couple of weeks to consume the cicadas completely, leaving just an empty shell.

  • Pupae: As the fall sets in, the cicada killer larvae prepare for the cold winter months by spinning a cocoon around themselves. Once the cocoon is complete, they initiate pupation, the transformation from larvae to adult wasps.
  • Adults: The adult cicada killer wasps appear upon the onset of summer, cutting their way out of the cocoon. While the males die soon after mating, the females continue to live, build a nest, and hunt cicadas for the next generation.

Once the nest is ready and stocked with paralyzed cicadas, the female lays the eggs, and the cycle continues.

How Long Do Cicada Killers Live?

The total lifespan of a cicada killer is around 11 to 13 months, but they live only a few weeks as adults. About 10 to 12 months are spent in the larval and pupal stages alone. As mentioned earlier, females live a bit longer than males.

Do They Bite/Sting?

I wouldn’t blame you for finding a cicada killer wasp frightening. Coming face to face with a large and brightly colored wasp that buzzes around loudly is indeed scary.

However, you might rest assured that cicada killer wasps don’t usually sting humans.

Unlike solitary wasps, they don’t defend their nests aggressively in large numbers, attacking anyone who gets close.

The females are capable of delivering a powerful and venomous sting, but they usually preserve it for their prey.

The males are more territorial and aggressive, but they lack stingers.

Cicada Killer with Annual Cicada

Are They Poisonous/Venomous?

Female cicada killers carry paralytic venom that they can deliver while stinging. The venom is meant to keep the prey immobilized and stored as live food for the larvae.

The venom doesn’t have much effect on humans, besides potentially triggering allergic reactions in those who are allergic to wasp stings.

Pets may sometimes experience swelling and other symptoms – make sure to rush to a vet immediately in such cases.

Are They Harmful or Beneficial to Humans?

Despite their scary appearance and painful stings, cicada wasp killers benefit humans by controlling the population of noisy cicadas.

This is the best thing about parasitoid wasps – they help in natural pest control. Remember, every living organism has a role to play in the ecosystem.

What Are Cicada Killers Attracted To?

These wasps are attracted to properties with sandy areas. Spare lawns, window boxes, and loose soil at the edges of foundations, sidewalks, and concrete slabs are attractive nesting sites too.

Of course, a suitable food source, such as a garden with flowerbeds,s would attract cicada killers too.

How To Get Rid of Cicada Killers?

Since cicada killers are rather docile and don’t pose much of a threat, homeowners usually do not need to get rid of these wasps.

However, a heavy presence of cicada killers on your property can be a problem.

The easiest way to get rid of these wasps is to destroy their nests. This way, you won’t have to deal with a bunch of cicada killers when they emerge after pupation next summer.

Destroying the nest should also drive the adult wasp elsewhere.

Though destroying a wasp nest usually involves the use of chemical pesticides, you may also use various natural solutions.

Pouring boiling water into the burrow entrance or dusting it with diatomaceous earth (DE) can kill the wasp as well as all the larvae and eggs.

If you prefer not to repel the wasps without harming them, spray peppermint oil in your garden to create a protective ring. It won’t kill cicada killers, but the pungent odor keeps them away.

Interesting Facts About Cicada Killers

As you can see, cicada killers are quite different from paper wasps and other common wasp species that you might be familiar with. Here are some interesting facts about them.

  • The female wasp of this species can predetermine the sex of their offspring and make sure more females are born than males. Since each male mates with several females, a higher female-to-male ratio is needed for the continued survival of the species.
  • When stocking the nest with cicadas, cicada killers provide more food for the female eggs, since the females grow larger as adults.
  • Though cicada killers are solitary wasps, it’s not unusual to find multiple cicada killer burrows in a property.

Wrapping up

If you come across large flying insects in Georgia carrying cicadas as they fly, they are possibly cicada killer wasps. 

While they might look like hornets that kill cicadas, they are nowhere as dangerous as hornets.

Hopefully, you won’t have too many cicada killers burrowing on your property and can allow them to coexist without any issues. 

However, in case you need to get rid of them, you now know how to go about it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if you get stung by a cicada killer?

If you get stung by a cicada killer, the pain may be intense, but it is unlikely to be life-threatening. Cicada killers are solitary wasps that are not aggressive toward humans, and they only sting when they feel threatened or cornered. The sting of a cicada killer can cause redness, swelling, and itching at the site of the sting, which may last for a few days. In rare cases, some people may experience an allergic reaction to the venom, which can cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, hives, and swelling of the face and throat. If you are allergic to insect stings, it is important to seek medical attention immediately if you are stung by a cicada killer or any other insect.

How painful is the sting of a cicada killer?

The sting of a cicada killer can be painful, but it is not considered dangerous to humans. The female cicada killer is the one that stings, and she only does so if she feels threatened or provoked. The venom from the sting is not toxic, but it can cause discomfort and pain for a few hours. Some people may also experience swelling or redness around the sting area. However, it is important to note that cicada killers are generally not aggressive toward humans, and they are actually beneficial insects as they help control the population of cicadas.

Are cicada killers good to have around?

Cicada killers are a type of large wasp that can often be found in gardens and other outdoor spaces during the summer months. While they can be intimidating due to their size and stinging ability, cicada killers are actually beneficial insects to have around. They primarily feed on cicadas, which are considered pests because they can damage trees and other plants. By controlling the cicada population, cicada killers help to protect plants and trees from harm. Additionally, cicada killers do not typically sting unless provoked, so they are generally not a threat to humans or pets. Overall, cicada killers can be a helpful addition to any garden ecosystem.

How long do cicada killers stay around?

Cicada killers are a type of wasp that emerge in late summer and early fall. They are typically active for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the climate and location. In warmer climates, cicada killers may be active for longer periods of time, while in cooler climates they may only be active for a few weeks. After mating, the female cicada killer will lay her eggs in a burrow she has dug in the ground, and then die shortly after. The larvae will hatch and feed on cicadas, which the female has previously paralyzed and stored in the burrow. Once the larvae have matured, they will pupate and emerge as adults in the following year.

Reader Emails

Cicada killers are much feared and often reviled, but fascinating wasps.

Many of our readers have had questions about these bugs in the past, and we get a lot of emails regarding them.

Here are a few select letters that might interest the reader.

Letter 1 – Fanmail

love your site
August 1, 2011 5:56 pm
I just happened on your site while researching Cicada Killers. That was two hours ago. This is the best site I have found in ages. So thorough. Thank you.
Signature: Jerri

Hi Jerri,
Thanks for the compliment, and we also hope you left our site with a favorable impression of the much maligned Cicada Killer.

Indeed I did. I researched the Cicada Kille because my sister (who is allergic to bees) saw them at the Dunes National Park in Indiana and was terrified of the stinging appearance. Thank you for helping me to put her mind at ease. By the way she lives in Northwest Indiana and this is the first time she has seen them. Again Thanks.
Jerri Simon

Letter 2 – Killers in Washington DC terrorize government workers!!!!

Bug of The Month NEWS
http://www.statesman.com/news/content/shared-gen/ap/US_Presidential_Cabinet/ODD_US_Diplomacy_Wasps.html Cicada Killers invade the government! LOL Keep up the good work!!
Steve Smith

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Killer photos of a Killer in action!!!

 

Cicada killer with prey
I thought you might like more pictures of a cicada killer with its prey…I saw on your site that you had only one person send you pictures of cicada killers. I have a few. Enjoy!
Trish



Wow Trish,
Great photos. What a nice addition to our site.

Authors

  • Daniel Marlos

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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