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Cicada Killer Wasps

Sphecius speciosus, often simply referred to as the cicada killer or the cicada hawk, is a large digger wasp species. Cicada killers are large, solitary wasps in the family Crabronidae. The name may be applied to any species of crabronid which preys on cicadas, though in North America it is typically applied to a single species, S. speciosus. However, since there are multiple species of related wasps, it is more appropriate to call it the eastern cicada killer. This species occurs in the eastern and midwest U.S. and southwards into Mexico and Central America. They are so named because they hunt cicadas and provision their nests with them. In North America they are sometimes called sand hornets, although they are not hornets, which belong to the family Vespidae. Cicada killers exert a measure of natural control on cicada populations and thus may directly benefit the deciduous trees upon which their cicada prey feed.

Adult eastern cicada-killer wasps are large, 1.5 to 5.0 centimetres (0.6 to 2.0 in) long, robust wasps with hairy, reddish and black areas on the thorax (middle part), and are black to reddish brown marked with light yellow stripes on the abdominal (rear) segments. The wings are brownish. Coloration superficially resembles that of some yellowjacket and hornet species. The females are somewhat larger than the males, and both are among the largest wasps seen in the Eastern United States, their unusual size giving them a uniquely fearsome appearance. European hornets (Vespa crabro) are often mistaken for Eastern cicada killers.

Solitary wasps (such as the eastern cicada killer) are very different in their behavior from the social wasps such as hornets, yellowjackets, and paper wasps. Cicada killer females use their sting to paralyze their prey (cicadas) rather than to defend their nests; unlike most social wasps and bees, they do not attempt to sting unless handled roughly. Adults feed on flower nectar and other plant sap exudates.

Adults emerge in summer, typically beginning around late June or early July and die off in September or October. They are present in a given area for 60 to 75 days, usually until mid-September. The large females are commonly seen skimming around lawns seeking good sites to dig burrows and searching for cicadas in trees and taller shrubs.

The males are more often seen in groups, vigorously challenging one another for position on the breeding aggregation from which they emerged, and generally investigate anything that moves or flies near them. It is not unusual to see two or three male wasps locked together in apparent midair combat, the aggregate adopting an erratic flight path until one of the wasps breaks away. The male wasp's aggressive behavior is similar to that of another robust insect of the area, the male carpenter bee. In both cases, while the males' vigorous territorial defense can be frightening and intimidating to human passersby, the males pose no danger whatsoever. Male cicada killers will only grapple with other insects, and cannot sting.

Although cicada killers are large, female cicada-killer wasps are not aggressive and rarely sting unless they are grasped roughly, stepped upon with bare feet, or caught in clothing, etc. One author who has been stung indicates that, for him, the stings are not much more than a "pinprick". Males aggressively defend their perching areas on nesting sites against rival males but they have no stinger. Although they appear to attack anything that moves near their territories, male cicada killers are actually investigating anything that might be a female cicada killer ready to mate. Such close inspection appears to many people to be an attack, but male and female cicada killers do not land on people and attempt to sting. If handled roughly, females will sting, and males will jab with a sharp spine on the tip of their abdomen. Both sexes are well equipped to bite, as they have large jaws; however, they do not appear to grasp human skin and bite. They are generally non-aggressive towards humans and usually fly away when swatted at, instead of attacking.