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John Fulton

John Fulton
Former County Extension Director

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In The Backyard

Horticulture columns and tips done on a timely basis
Cicada Killer Wasp

The Large Cicada Killer Wasp Returns

Posted by John Fulton -

With lower numbers than some years, and a later appearance than normal, the cicada killer wasps have returned! They are actually considered beneficial insects because they control cicadas. This wasp gets its common name due to the fact that it hunts and supplies its nest chambers with a cicada or other large insect such as a katydid, which becomes a food source for the young cicada killer. Cicada killers are a nuisance pest, especially when nesting in large numbers in a play area or near the house. People get concerned because the cicada killers resemble giant yellowjackets (or the often reported but not confirmed Asian Killer Hornet).

Cicada killers are about 2 inches long and black to red, with yellow banded markings on the abdomen. The head and transparent wings are reddish brown. They are not dangerous, but they are intimidating. Cicada killers are solitary wasps, with the female digging a 6- to 10-inch burrow (1/2 inch in diameter) in the ground. A pile of soil typically surrounds the entrance. The female locates and stings a large insect such as a cicada or katydid and then brings it back to the burrow. She places the insect into a chamber and lays an egg on it; sometimes she puts two in a burrow but lays an egg on only one. She then covers the burrow, digs another, and repeats the process. The egg hatches into a grublike, legless larva that consumes the paralyzed insect. Full-grown larvae overwinter in the burrow, pupate in the spring, and emerge as an adult during the summer, usually in July and August.

Male cicada killers establish aerial territories and patrol for intruders. A male cicada killer drives off other males that enter his territory and attempt to mate with females. Anyone else walking into the territory is typically confronted by a very large wasp, which hovers in front of the face and zips to the side and back. However, after determining that the "intruder" is not a rival, the wasp ignores the individual.

Cicada killers are unlikely to sting a person. Wasp and bee stingers are modified egg-laying devices (ovipositors), so males are not able to sting. Females may sting if crushed, either by being stepped on with bare feet or grabbed with bare hands.

Cicada killers are more common in areas with bare soil, so mulching, planting ground covers, or putting down sod can reduce problems. Applying permethrin or Sevin (some suggest the Sevin dust gives better control) to the burrowed area should kill females in high traffic areas.. Once females are gone, males leave. In home yards, sandboxes can be covered with a tarp when not in use, as this deters the wasps (and also keep cats out). Sand below swings, jungle gyms, or other playground equipment is a popular site for the cicada killer. Raking the sand may discourage the wasps, or you could use mulch instead of the sand.

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