Cicada killers are often misunderstood as yellow jackets or giant hornets due to their size and shape, but we assure you these two wasps are not alike! In this article, we compared cicada killers with yellow jackets.
Sphecius speciosus sounds like a spell you’d use to jinx someone, but we assure you, it’s actually the scientific name of the solitary Cicada Killer and only spells doom for the cicada.
On the other end of the ring, we have the very lethal Yellow Jacket, whose sting can poison your blood. Let’s find out more about them!
The cicada hawk loves preying on Cicadas (no surprise there!), while the latter enjoys making a meal out of flower nectar.
Both species have some similarities and a lot of differences that set them apart. Without further ado, let’s get into the details.
Differences Between Cicada Killers and Yellow Jackets
The Cicada Killers and Yellow Jackets sound suspiciously like two NBA teams you would be rooting for. But in reality, these two insects send people running with their tails between their legs.
There are many differences between the both of them. Their nesting behavior is as different as their nests, and they like to devour different things. To each their own, as they say.
Despite their differences, both insects will sting you if provoked or threatened. The level of aggression varies along with the effects of their stings, but we are sure you wouldn’t like either of the stings!
Size & Appearance
The Cicada Killers have a black or dark brown body and are approximately two inches in length. On their body, you will be able to notice light yellow bands on different segments of the abdomen.
These amber-winged wasps are hairy and, at first, look similar to the Yellow Jackets. But on closer inspection, you will be able to differentiate between the body structures of both insects.
Like almost every other wasp species, the female wasp has a larger body because it needs to lay eggs. The females are also built larger to help them drag cicadas away to their burrows for nesting.
Yellow Jackets are known to sport a black or yellowish band (or a yellow stripe) that spans across their abdomen. Their faces are black- and yellow-colored too!
These social wasps belong to the Vespinae subfamily and are easily confused with different hornets, but their yellow or white markings with lance-like stingers distinguish them from others.
The female Cicada Killer prefers sites that have embankments, lawns present in populated areas, and individual burrows constructed separately. These solitary wasps dig burrows under sidewalks and roadsides too.
On the other hand, Yellow Jackets enjoy living in colonies. Many species of Yellow Jackets build nests both above and below ground. They also use rodent burrows, leafy tree branches, and wall voids to make their homes.
What they Eat
Cicada Killers enjoy a meal that includes nectar of flowers, fermented tree sap, and other plant-based materials. On the other hand, their larvae devour cicadas and other insects.
Adult Yellow Jackets also enjoy dining on fruit juices, nectar, and other sweet materials. The wasp larvae of these species feed on soft-bodied insects like caterpillars and flies.
They don’t mind attacking bee hives in search of food, either.
Let not the large size and coloring of the cicada killer wasp scare you off. They are quite harmless to humans unless, of course, provoked.
Justin O. Schmidt, the father of the insect pain index, calls them the “gentle giants of the wasp world.” The female cicada killer has a stinger but rarely puts it to use.
On the contrary, the Yellow Jacket is a territorial species of wasp. They can become very aggressive. When provoked, these stinging insects can leave you writhing on the floor and can even prove fatal in some cases.
They tend to attack in hordes, and this tendency makes them even more dangerous – these wasps can cause multiple stings.
Habitat & Season Of Their Appearance
The solitary cicada killer or the Eastern cicada killer loves living in well-drained, lightly textured soils near trees that have no scarcity of cicadas while enjoying summer. They also inhabit flower beds, patio edges, lawns, and gardens.
Yellow jackets frequent places where humans live. They are known to build nests in hollow logs, tree stumps, attics, rodent burrows, and wall voids. They can be seen seeking a home during late summertime and early autumn.
States In Which They Are Found
Cicada Killers can be easily found in the Eastern United States, more specifically, east of the Rocky Mountains. Different species of the family are also found throughout the United States.
One can find yellow jackets inhabiting meadows, playgrounds, and suburban localities throughout North America. They can be found from North Dakota and Texas to the Atlantic coast.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will a cicada killer wasp sting you
Yes, a cicada killer will sting you when provoked. But in general, the mild-mannered cicada killer minds her own business and is busy creating nests in prime locations.
The occasional attack on cicadas is to leave her larvae with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What’s the difference between a cicada killer and a wasp
Cicada killers are wasps. Their sizes may suggest differently, but they are wasps right down to their smallest yellow markings.
They are also often confused with murder hornets. Upon close observation, one will be able to distinguish between the both due to the striations on their body and the color of their heads.
Is a cicada killer a wasp or a hornet?
The amber-winged cicada killer is a wasp. Actively hovering around across Kentucky, the cicada killer has waspish characteristics such as a formidable stinger for the female along with venom-producing glands and a modified egg-laying structure.
How painful is the sting of a cicada killer
The solitary wasp loves to mind its own business. Despite its fierce appearance, the cicada killer is mild-mannered. On Schmidt’s painful sting scale, the killer wasp only scores a meager 0.5 (less painful than a honeybee).
Cicada killers and yellow jackets are quite different from each other, but like all other beings in their species and on the planet, they share similar characteristics that bring them closer to each other.
The point is not to dwell much on the similarities; if there is one thing to take away from this article – yellow jackets are to be feared, whereas cicada killers are friends.
In most cases, with cicada killers, just live and let others live (except paralyzed cicadas, I guess). Thank you for reading!
Cicada killers and Yellow Jackets often get confused with each other, but both have completely different temperaments.
Go through some of our reader emails below, highlighting how different these two wasps really are
Letter 1 – First Cicada Killer of the season
For a week, this bug has visited our patio in the same spot at the same time each morning. (S)he sits on the edge of the concrete facing the grass/dirt while her bottom pulses up and down on the concrete. What is it? Why does it hang out here? Is there a nest? Is (s)he grocery shopping?
Buford , GA
We are very thrilled to get your photo, the first Cicada Killer of the season. These large solitary wasps dig burrows that they provision with paralyzed Cicadas that serve as food for the larvae. The adults eat nectar and pollen.
Update: (06/14/2007) Eric Eaton Wrote
Daniel: The lovely image of the cicada killer is a male of the species. Males are very territorial, and he is likely “shopping” for a female that may already have a burrow started nearby, or will be emerging from one shortly. Males behave aggressively, but do not have stingers. The person who submitted the image should have fun watching these wasps this summer. Females can sting of course, but unless you grab one or accidentally step on one in bare feet, you won’t get stung.
Letter 2 – Cicada Killers
Some kind of hornet
I killed this hornet in the waiting area of an auto repair shop this afternoon in downtown Durham, NC. It seemed to have flown in and couldn’t get back out. I was more than happy to “help” it. Below is a description and attached are 3 pics for identification.
Full length (eyes to stinger = 37cm)
Abdomen widest width = 8.5mm
Thorax widest widthwidth 9mm
Wingspan = 63mm
Antennae = 13mm each
The eyes are large and brown. The face between the eyes is yellow with some brown on it. The antennae are made of small segments and gets slightly thicker toward the end, before tapering right at the tips. They are black. All 6 legs are kinda “spikey” like a roach or locust. at the 2nd joint of the hindmost legs there are 2 small appendages which look like small pinchers connected at the joint and proturding toward the feet Thorax is very dark brown and medium dark brown. Thorax is also a bit fuzzy near the abdomen There are 2 longer outer wings and 2 shorter inner/under wings. Abdomen seems to have 6 “sections”. The 1st section from the thorax has 2 yellow markings. The 2nd section has 2 yellow markings on the back, 2 small ones on the sides and 2 small spots on the underside. The 3rd section has 2 yellow markings on the back. The last three are solid black.
I made a very detailed description as the photos from my SonyEricsson T616 cellphone camera aren’t that great. I searched quite a few sites for this formidable looking fellow but came up empty-handed. Hope you can help. Thanks 🙂
You have a Cicada Killer Wasp, Specius speciosus. According to the Golden Guide of Insects: “This large solitary wasp digs a burrow a foot or so deep. In side passages the female stores adult cicadas which she has paralyzed by stinging. The heavy cicadas are dragged up a tree by the killer till she can get enough altitude to fly back to her burrow. When the egg hatches, the lrva feedes on the helpless cicada. In a week it is full grown and pupates in a loose cocoon. It emerges the following summer, completing its life cycle.” Though your photos are blurry, we are thrilled to have them.
Letter 3 – Cicada Killers
These seem to have moved into the base of my willow tree and i am worried that they might be harming the tree. can you tell me if i need to take measures to discurage them from my tree.
Your wasps are Cicada Killers and there is no need to worry about them harming your trees. Adult wasps feed on nectar and pollen and the female stings and paralyzes cicadas to provision a solitary underground nest for her young. Cicada Killers help control the Cicada population, and Cicadas may harm your trees by feeding on plant sap at the roots when they are immature. Additionally, the female damages twigs when laying eggs, so the presence of Cicada Killers may benefit your tree. We have gotten reports of large colonies of Cicada Killers frightening people, but they are rather benign insects, though the occasional sting is reported to be painful. While it is interesting that you have titled your photograph “Nasty New Freeloaders” we feel the name is unjustified.
Letter 4 – Cicada Killers
We have a big landscaped island in between our circular driveway. In a storm the bradford pear split and when my husband and son went out to cut it up they were swarmed but not bitten by huge wasp looking things. I’m sending you a picture. After consulting your website it looks like they may be paper wasps. There are hundreds of them and we aren’t sure where they are coming from. It doesn’t look like they have a traditional nest in a tree or above ground. How do you get rid of them. I had to use my telephoto lens to get close enough to get a picture.
You have a colony of Cicada Killer wasps. The males are territorial, but to do not sting. The females can sting, but are very reluctant to do so. Seeing a female Cicada Killer flying with a Cicada so she can provide food for her brood is an awesome sight.
Letter 5 – First Cicada Killer of the Season
Cicada Killer? Or other?
July 5, 2010
This 4cm wasp showed up in my screened porch in Nashville, TN this hot sunny, 94’F afternoon (July 5). Although, I know you don’t approve of killing them, with small nieces and nephews about, it was not going to be allowed to stay as our guest. I have never seen one like this and wanted to know if I need to be concerned for the sake of the humans near by, or if future visitors are expected to be harmless. The ruler used for scale is indicating centimeters. Thanks for your help.
Your identification of the Cicada Killer, Sphecius speciosus, is correct. By all indications, a female Cicada Killer could theoretically sting a person, though we have never received a confirmed report that a person has been stung by a Cicada Killer. The males which tend to aggressively defend territory, are incapable of stinging. It is our opinion that you do not need to be concerned that humans will be stung by future Cicada Killers that visit your home. Thank you for recognizing that we do not approve of killing insects unnecessarily, though we fully understand that the instinct to protect small children is behind much of the Unnecessary Carnage that comes our way. It is possible to use this mounted specimen as an educational tool with the youngsters who should be taught to appreciate and respect the natural world around them. Just yesterday, we overheard a conversation between two adult women and a young girl who were walking past our Mt Washington offices in Los Angeles. One woman mentioned that turning right would go to a park (Elyria Canyon Park), and the child wanted to know more about the park. The woman explained to the child that there was nothing there but grass and that there might be coyotes. This mentality toward open space and its preservation is counter productive in our mind. Children should be taught not to fear natural open spaces, but to appreciate them. This is the only way that future generations will fight to protect undeveloped land.
Thank you so much for your rapid response to my request for information. I will most certainly use my specimen of the cicada killer to teach those around me about it – both young and old. In fact, I have already shared the picture and your information with several friends. I am with you 100% regarding the need to educate people about the world around us. If you don’t know something exists, you can’t advocate for it. Future cicada killers in my world will be safe. Thank you again.
Letter 6 – Female Cicada Killer
Moth or Bee?
Location: Rochester Hills, MI
July 20, 2011 7:26 pm
Dear Bugman: I’ve been seeing this insect flying around my house for a few days. Today I found it digging several tunnels under some rocks. It’s about 2” long and looks like it has 2 sets of wings with a nipped waist and head. Although the antennae look like a moth’s, it sounds like a bee. The abdomen is smooth, so I’m not sure if it is a type of hawk moth or not.
This is neither. This is a female Cicada Killer, a species of Sand Wasp. The female digs an underground nursery and that appears to be its opening in your photo. She will provision it with paralyzed Cicadas to serve as food for her brood. A female Cicada Killer will normally lay 2 to 7 eggs in her underground nest, and each is in its own chamber with an adequate food supply of Cicadas.
Thank you so much for your quick reply! Now the big question is whether I take steps to get rid of it or just leave it alone. Apparently those tunnels will produce a new generation. Thanks again!
Letter 7 – First Cicada Killer of 2012
Subject: Biggest insect we’ve ever seen
Location: Southeast United States
June 19, 2012 6:23 pm
This insect looked to be about 2 inches long. We’ve never seen anything like it. Can you identify it for us?
We are thrilled to receive your photo since it is the first Cicada Killer submission we have had this year, but this also signals that we will begin receiving Cicada Killer carnage photos. From all the research we have done, we have concluded that Cicada Killers are not aggressive and we cannot substantiate a confirmation of a person being stung, though we admit it is possible to sustain a sting from a Cicada Killer. Like all wasps, only the female can sting. The males will defend territory, so they appear to be aggressive, but they are harmless. Most people are concerned about Cicada Killers because of their size, but also, though they are solitary wasps, they tend to nest in colonies when the sandy soil they prefer is available. A female Cicada Killer stings and paralyzes Cicadas to supply food for her brood.
Thank you so much! Knowing they are not aggressive makes me feel a little better. Does this mean we will be seeing many more of them around our house?
Possibly, but not necessarily. The populations of Cicada Killers vary from year to year and some years they are very common while other years they are barely noticed.
Letter 8 – Cicada, not Cicada Killer
Subject: Mistaken cicada killer
Location: Atlanta, Georgia, US
July 7, 2012 9:02 pm
I live in the Atlanta area and we have seen a host of large bee/wasp/hornet creatures around our house (carpenter bees, cicada killers, asian hornets, etc). When I saw a dead one floating in my dogs’ water bucket, I was interested. I assumed due to it’s size that it was a cicada killer. However, upon further inspection I don’t think it is. The head and mouth (it looks like it has a herbivorous sap-drinking type mouth) seem wrong for a cicada killer or asian hornet. It still has very large size and I often think these things are humming birds flying around until they land. Any idea what it might be? Note: my wife tells me it had been in the bucket for a couple days and i had to wash some algae off it, so I don’t think the green markings are natural and the colors may be somewhat faded.
Signature: Danny G.
That’s too funny. I guess I had a different looking bug in mind for cicadas. Thanks for the help.
Letter 9 – First Cicada Killer Photo of the year
Subject: What is this thing?!?
Location: Austin, Texas, USA
June 28, 2013 10:57 am
So I have noticed these things flying around our yard for the last couple months, it’s the end of June now.. They’re about an inch in length with yellow and black coloring down the body. If you look straight down at them while they are digging, they look like roaches. They fly around during the day but just last night, I walked out to find them wiggling their bodies in and out of dirt mounds that have popped up over night in our yard. It was like they were making a path to the holes they were coming in and out of. Just really worried because they are literally right at our front door and right next to the cars in the driveway and I don’t want my son or myself to get stung or attacked in any way.
Signature: Concerned human
Dear Concerned human,
We got distracted with real life responsibilities yesterday and we never got around to addressing your identification request. Despite the blurry image, your description and the general shape and coloration of this Wasp indicates it is a Cicada Killer. Cicada Killers are not aggressive, but they occasionally form colonies where multiple females will nest in the same general area. If they are visible at night, you may have seen some recently emerged adults that have spent the last year as developing larvae and then pupae. The life cycle of a Cicada Killer is quite fascinating. The female digs an underground nest that is provisioned with paralyzed Cicadas. She will drag a Cicada and glide with it for a considerable distance to get her prey to the nest. She will then lay an egg on the paralyzed Cicada which will feed the developing larva. Because of their large size, Cicada Killer are often victims of unnecessary carnage. Female Cicada Killers would be capable of stinging if carelessly handled, but they have no interest in humans and we have never received a verified report of a person being stung by a Cicada Killer. Male Cicada Killers sometimes defend territory rather aggressively, however, they are incapable of stinging as the stinger of all bees and ants is a modified ovipositor, an organ for laying eggs. Because of that, only female bees and wasps possess stingers.
Letter 10 – Eastern Cicada Killer
Subject: Eastern Cicada killer wasp in the West?
Location: Albuquerque, NM
July 13, 2013 10:18 am
I have seen this giant wasp-like thing feeding on nectar for the past four days or so. Research on Wikipedia was insufficient to determine what kind of Cicada Killer it is (although it assured me I could get close enough to take pictures). I live in Albuquerque, NM and this seems to match closer to the Eastern Cicada killer than the Western or Pacific. Any thoughts would be helpful! This same bush has also played host to a fantastic Tarantula Hawk in the past.
Signature: Desert dweller
Dear Desert dweller,
We agree that this is an Eastern Cicada Killer. We checked on BugGuide, and there is at least one sighting from New Mexico and at least one from Colorado, but that appears to be the westernmost reach of its range.
Letter 11 – First Cicada Killer image of the season
Subject: Wasp or Hornet?
Location: Truro, MA
July 26, 2014 7:39 am
I live in Truro, MA. This insect sits on the corner of my deck each morning that it is sunny but not when it is cloudy or in the evenings. It is quite large (over an inch), and stays all day making the deck unusable. I can’t get close enough to spray because it immediately flies and appears aggressive. Can you tell me what it is and if it is really aggressive.
This is a solitary wasp known as a Cicada Killer, a species that preys upon Cicadas. This is likely a male, and male wasps are incapable of stinging. He is likely defending territory against other males in the hope of luring a female into mating and digging a nearby burrow. Female Cicada Killers are capable of stinging, but they are not aggressive. We would urge you to abandon your attempts to spray this impressive Cicada Killer. Normally, we get numerous Cicada Killer identification requests each summer, but this summer your submission is the only one we have received.
Thank you Daniel, for your help. I will not spray.
Letter 12 – Cicada Killers
Subject: Unusual bee
Location: Suburbs of Chicago, IL
August 9, 2017 7:37 am
This was on our screen, and we have never seen a bee like this one. It was about 1 1/2 inches lond and its stinger was pulsing. Very scary! If possible, please let us know what it is and if it’s dangerous. Thank you!
Signature: Linda & Justin Meyer
Dear Linda and Justin,
This large wasp is a Cicada Killer. Males defend territory and may buzz at humans, but they are perfectly harmless as they do not have stingers. Female Cicada Killers are not aggressive. They use their stinger to sting and paralyze Cicadas to feed to their brood which is housed in an underground burrow.