Warning! Do not kill the killer look-alike

Do you remember this quote “Not all men are kings, but all kings are men”? Well, entomologists say: “Not all wasps are hornets, but all hornets are wasps.”

The large black and yellow cicada killer is not a hornet although this insect is large enough to fool you into thinking it could be the invasive Asian Giant Hornet. The cicada killer is a harmless wasp, a solitary, burrowing, docile, gentle giant.

They have been compared to a toothless dog: “all bark and no bite.” The male has no stinger but is very territorial and will defend his area with his loud buzz, flying directly at people, dogs or anything else he perceives as danger. Both male and female are harmless to us, but not to the cicada because for the cicada this wasp is deadly.

They are incredible hunters and clever flying machines as well as effective embalmers who turn cicadas into zombies. After being injected with venom from the female wasp the immobilized cicada is powerless to do anything other than breathe, and he is helpless to stop the wasp from sealing him in an underground tomb with one of her eggs which will hatch into a very hungry larva. The female wasp injects the live cicada with paralyzing venom that will keep him immobile for the rest of his life. A cicada injected with venom actually lives longer than a cicada that has avoided the killer wasp.

Unlike most mothers, this wasp can determine the sex of her offspring. If she leaves only one cicada for one egg a male wasp will develop. Because females are nearly twice the size of males it takes the nourishment of two cicadas for a female to develop properly. Thus the female wasp will leave two cicadas for an egg if she wants a female wasp to develop.

Cicada killers carefully select their nesting sites. They look for a southeast facing slope with large deciduous trees nearby. They do not nest in hydric soils. She prefers light-textured, well-drained soil to build her U-shaped mound and burrows.

These hunter wasps that dig burrows have front legs that are equipped with rake-like structures. She moves the dirt out then pushes it away from the hole using her abdomen like a broom.

One female wasp can fill a dozen or more nests during her life, thus clearing our world of more than 30 cicadas a season, and she shares her burrow with other females that also are building nests. As they go about their work, the females are constantly visiting and pollinating flowering plants, and this is why the colorful black and yellow wasp needs to be left alone.