In this blog, we discuss the various ordeals and gauntlets that cicada killer larvae have to contend with so that they can turn into adult wasps. Have a read!
From the time female cicada killers mate to the phase when the pupae finally emerge as young cicada killers, there is a lot that goes on in the life of these wasps.
Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus) spend only 1/5th of their lives as the wasps that we see around us. The rest of the time is spent underground, in burrows.
In this article, we look at the cicada killer larvae, their birth, feeding habits, predators that prey on them, and more.
How Cicada Killers Lay Their Eggs
When adult cicada killers come out of their burrows, it is already summer.
We are talking late June to early July when the sun is out and the world is lush and teeming with life again.
These adults don’t live very long, however, just 2-2.5 months. It just seems that long because they are buzzing all over the place.
By mid-September, most of them have already gone to their heavenly abode.
The females live longer than the males because they need to do more than just mate – they are responsible for ensuring the survival of the species.
The poor males are born simply to mate and die immediately after.
You can see them flying around gardens and yards, looking for places where they can dig holes in the ground.
Most often, these solitary wasps make their nests near the edge of a crossway or a pavement or else in berms, patios, and driveways.
The nests are most often about 6 to 10 inches deep, and the opening of the hole is quite wide – about ½ inch. It is easy to find cicada killer nests by the mound of loose soil near them.
Provisioning The Cells
Once they are done with their nests, their next port of action is to hunt down cicadas. They find their prey and sting them, causing instant paralysis.
When the cicada is immobilized, the wasp then holds it upside down between her legs and carries it back to her nest.
Often, the cicadas they carry home are more than twice their weight, but the wasp persists and brings many more bugs in the same way.
Back home, the Mumma wasp carries it into one of the cells of her nest, lays her egg (only one per cicada), and then closes the nest cell’s mouth.
Interestingly, the mother knows which of her eggs are going to become female and which ones are male (their gender reveal parties must be rather boring).
She uses this information to provide more than one cicada for the girls, while the boys get just one each.
The reason behind this discrimination is simple – the female wasps are bigger, need to bear eggs, and live longer.
Coming back to our story, there are several of these cells in each nest (can be upto ten or even more). Each cell is meant for one and only one egg (but maybe more than one prey, as just discussed).
Eggs Hatch and the Larvae Come Out
It takes a day or two for the eggs to start hatching, but when they finally do, the larvae have a huge supply of food already available to them.
Within the next two weeks, the larvae first suck out the blood and juices of the cicada and then eat the other organs one by one, leaving the neural ganglia (the insect equivalent of a brain) and heart for the end.
They may be small, but these grub-like larvae sure like their meat fresh.
Pupation, Overwintering, and Adult Wasps
After the larvae finish their lavish meal and are ready for the next stage in about two weeks’ time, they create a cocoon for themselves coated with mud.
They then go to sleep and let the seasons change around them. During winters, these bugs remain hidden in their cocoon, awaiting warmer weather outside.
After winter is over, the larvae come out of their cocoons to pupate. Pupation is rather unremarkable and takes about a month’s time.
Finally, the adult wasps are ready to come out and repeat the life cycle again.
Velvet Ants Parasitize the Parasitoids
What we just described above was the best-case scenario for these larvae. However, as the old adage goes, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.
The larval stage is the most vulnerable point for these cicada killers. Unfortunately, there are others who look at the wasps and say – hey, we can do this parasite thing too!
Turning the story on its head, the rather unfortunately named velvet ant (which is actually a wasp, not an ant) digs up the closed nest chambers.
She then places her own eggs on the larvae of the cicada killer wasp to do exactly what the larvae themselves are doing – parasitize its host.
This cruel twist of nature is not unique to cicada killers, however.
The bright orange-colored velvet ant does this to honeybees and other ground wasps as well. That said, cicada killer larvae are still one of their favorite grubs.
Satellite Flies Steal Their Prey in Midair
As if it wasn’t bad enough that other wasps are parasitizing their larvae, there are creatures that also parasitize the cicadas themselves.
Satellite flies are a species of parasitic flies that love to hover around just over or near the wasps that they parasitize.
These flies produce live maggots instead of laying eggs. But their maggots are just as hungry as the cicada killer larvae.
When the female cicada killer subdues her prey and is carrying it home, these flies will carpet bomb it with their own maggots, often just before she enters her burrow.
The flies are very precise with their target, and their maggots end up inside the cicadas, eating them up by the time the poor cicada killer larvae even have a chance to hatch.
Theif Cicada Killers
One final twist in the tale is that sometimes, there are thief cicada killers who just wait around for other females to provision their nest.
They then go in and lay their own eggs on the cicada to get all the nutrition and benefits that were meant for the other wasp’s eggs.
This behavior is called kleptoparasitism, and it is quite a common trait in cicada killers.
In fact, scientists have even observed some cicada killer wasps chucking out these thieves from their nests.
It makes sense that evolutionarily cicada killers have taken to thieving from other wasps of their own species.
Life is not very easy for these insects. For one thing, not all female wasps grow to be strong and powerful; a lot depends on how much food their mothers were able to provide before they were born.
On the other hand, hunting cicadas and then carrying them back to the nest is hard work. Cicadas can be quite heavy, almost twice the size of poor wasps.
Therefore, many of the smaller wasps in the family have created this easy way out to simply sit back, relax and let others do all the work for them.
Kingbirds Steal Their Cicadas
One last ordeal that the female wasp must run in order to provision her nest for her children is to contend with Cassin’s kingbirds and thick-billed kingbirds.
These birds fly in the air and wait for cicada killers to fly their prey back to their nests.
The female wasp is extremely vulnerable at this time because her prey may be twice as heavy as she himself is.
Moreover, after having battled and subdued her prey a few instants ago, she is probably already tired.
At her weakest, kingbirds swoop in and steal her hard-fought cicadas from her and carry them away in their beaks, leaving behind the wasp to rue her loss and start back again.
These birds use the perch atop mesquite and agave trees to keep an eye on their prey.
It makes a lot of sense for kingbirds to do this. After all, finding cicadas is quite hard because they are able to camouflage themselves quite well in thick foliage among plants
So instead of searching for their prey, they let the female cicada killer wasps do all the work, and once the paralyzed cicadas are primed for eating, they simply swoop in and steal the poor larvae’s meal.
We hope you had fun reading about the trials and tribulations of cicada killers and the immense difficulties with which their larvae are able to survive in a cruel world full of parasites and thieves.
Unfortunately, apart from these other bugs, cicada killers have one more enemy – a threat larger than any of these. And that enemy, as you might have guessed, is us humans.
We often end up mistaking these gentle giants of the wasp world for more dangerous varieties such as yellow jackets or Asian giant hornets.
They are nowhere as aggressive or harmful as either of these species. But despite that, large swathes of these wasps are wiped out by humans every year with wasp sprays and other insecticides.
After reading this blog, it should be obvious that these poor creatures are struggling to survive in a big bad world and don’t need to contend with another apex predator like ourselves.
Thank you for reading.
Cicada killers carrying katydids and grasshoppers to feed their babies is a common sight in some parts of the US.
But few know that the life that is just beginning will have so many trials by fire before it can survive and become an adult wasp.
Our readers have often sent us confused letters asking why wasps are buzzing around carrying insects in between their legs.
Some of these are show below.
Letter 1 – Cicada Killer
Cicada Wasp Killer
My name is Lorraine Cook. My backyard in Philadelphia, PA. has been invaded by CK. I contacted Professor Chuck Holliday of Lafayette College (Easton, PA) who confirmed the identity of the wasps. I’m currently collecting paralyzed cicadas for Professor Holliday to aid in his research. Sincerely,
Your photo appeals to our questionable sense of humor. We just hope the Cicada Killer did not mistake the lovely young lady pictured on the box for a Cicada.
Letter 2 – Cicada Killer
Cicada Killer & Burrow!
Wow!! Thanks to your site, I knew just what this creature was when I spotted her! I stepped out of my home to photograph the sunrise but was distracted by a LOUD buzz behind me. I saw the cicada killer crawling around this large hole which I sort of thought a small mammal was living in. Now I know!! And I’m not that surprised that we have one taking up residence in our yard—the cicadas have been annoyingly loud the past couple weeks. Arg!
We are getting so many wonderful Cicada Killer photos, but we think we may need to stop posting them after yours.
Letter 3 – Cicada Killer
Cicada Killer Photos
Don’t need an ID; just thought you might enjoy these shots of a female Cicada Killer I took today in Chicago. I look forward to seeing them every summer. I spent an hour kneeling over the female as she worked, with others circling around me like fighter planes and they never laid a stinger on me. If you have them near you, there is no need to attack them with pesticide. They are not aggressively defensive like yellow jackets and paper wasps. Other pictures of her digging the burrow can be found at my web site:
My My Cory,
That action photo of the Cicada Killer flying with extremely shallow depth of field is awesome. Thanks for sending your letter.
Letter 4 – Cicada Killer
I live in Michigan and I have never seen anything like this. It is almost 2 inches in length and it terrorizes us when we leave our house. Please let me know what this is.
Cicada Killers must be very numerous this year judging by the letters we are receiving. Must be global warming.
Letter 5 – Cicada Killer
THE UFO IN MY BACKYARD
Please, help me! What is this thing? It scares me and I have been afraid to go in my backyard with my daughter. There was one in my backyard last year and now this one showed up and for some unknown reason, maybe some divine intervention, it died nicely on my back porch so that I could take pictures of it! Please, please, what is it and why is there usually just one? Please note: I can hear it coming from over the house. like an airplane. I am anxiously awaiting your response. Thank you! Thank you!
Cicada Killers seem to be especially plentiful, especially in Texas, this year.
After extensive research and more freaking out, that is what I decided. The CK did meet an untimely death on his own, by the way… and thanks for the quick response. I think you have tapped in to an untapped market. Smart! If you ever need help with any promotional marketing efforts for this venture or any other, email me! I am forever grateful for your site! By the way, I expect your email volume to increase dramatically since you were mentioned on the FIRST page of Real Simple magazine… I live in Dallas, and don’t know anyone who does not subscribe to this insightful magazine… Regardless, awesome site!!
Hi Again Erin,
We knew about the Real Simple profile, but never suspected we would be on page 1. We still haven’t seen the magazine but might try the news stand again tomorrow. Thanks for the compliment.
Letter 6 – Cicada Killer
can you ID this
These have been all over my yard each of the last 4 mornings. I’ve never seen them before, and they seem harmless, but they are terrorizing my wife.
What a marvelous image of a Cicada Killer, Sphecius speciosus. They are not aggressive, but we would not want to be stung by one. As the name implies, they are predatory on Cicadas, the larval food source, but adults are pollen feeders.
Letter 7 – Cicada Killer
Local Cicada Killer Wasp
Thank you for such a wonderful site, your images, information, and submitted stories are the best! I have discovered some Cicada Killer wasps (I think Sphecius speciosus) in my yard here in northwest Austin, Texas. There’s one in particular which I’ve been able to photograph, and a few others are buzzing around which all look very similar, although they vary in size. He/she seemed very docile and let me get quite close with my camera and tripod. Later, I discovered a nest beside my house, and just as I was finding it I was lucky enough to observe some female returning and entering the nest. These guys are really big: 2 inches if I’m a day old, and they truly strike fear into most people (like me!) due to their size, but they go about their business and didn’t bother me a bit. I’m including my 2 best pics of the insect at rest, plus another in flight that I hope you like, and also one of the nest I found. Finally, I have a quicktime movie of my friend briefly visiting my back porch palm at my website here: http://www.jrj3.com/arthropods/ckwasp.mpg
P.S. May you never meet an Assassin Bug from the business end…
Just remember, people like you make our humble website what it is. Thanks for the wonderful contribution.
Letter 8 – Cicada Killer
what is this bug?
Subject: what is this bug? This is by far the biggest wasp type bug I’ve seen in central Texas. What is it?
This is a Cicada Killer. The wasps sting and paralyze Cicadas and then fly with them to their burrow.
Letter 9 – Cicada Killer
cicada killer picture
Here’s a picture of what I think is a Cicada Killer based upon the information on your website. ve never seen any cicadas (we call them locusts here); however we have about 5 or more of these cicada killers flying around our property. They seem to dig holes in the ground, pushing out the dirt into piles beside it. I photographed one this morning on our sidewalk where we live in Warren County, New Jersey. I recently found your website while doing a search for bug information on
www.google.com . Thanks for doing such a great job on your site! Take care,
We are very happy you found us and love your photo of a Cicada Killer.
Letter 10 – Cicada Killer
I finally snapped a picture of one of these guys. Maybe they do only have 2 wings. I was wondering if they are nest builders or live in the ground, as I have yet to find their home. Hope this helps!
Brittney from NC
The last few Cicada Killer images we have gotten were from dead insects, so we are very happy to see your specimen flying. They build underground nests stocked with paralyzed cicadas for the young to eat.