Cicada-killer Wasps

The largest wasp species in North America at nearly an inch long, they look similar to the Asian Giant Hornet but these have a gentler disposition and are actually beneficial to mankind and nature.

Cicada Killer Wasp: The Not-So Killer Bee

The cicada killer wasp is a large wasp of the Central and North Americas, often reaching 20mm (approx. 1-inch) in length. They have been sited by people whom, at first glance swear that they what they saw was a hummingbird-sized bee! Cicada killer wasps are found from Central to North America all the way up to and into Canada and somewhat common in the southern United States where they are sometimes mistaken for another specie called the Asian Giant Hornet.

Asian Hornet in America

The giant Japanese wasps Suzumebachi or ’sparrow bee’ are an unwanted invasive eastern European specie. Sometimes also called “Tiger’s Head Wasp,” these large wasps can destroy an entire honeybee hive of many thousands of bees in just a matter of several hours.

Using just three or four ’soldiers’ whom wage a frontal attack against the hive, they kill every bee in the hive and then plunder the honey and eat the honeybee larvae.

The adult cicada killer wasps however, eat only nectar from flowers but the females also hunt cicada insects which they use to line the nest cells their yet unhatched brood of eggs. The cicada killer wasp lands upon a tree trunk or branch in a tree and stalks its prey, using the chirping vibrations of the cicada to locate the prey.

Cicada: Primary Food for the Cicada Killer Wasp Larvae

(image by author)

They pounce upon it and deliver the immobilizing sting. The now paralyzed cicada is flown away to their burrow lair and loaded into an underground ‘cell’ where several eggs have been laid. The cell is then sealed-up. These underground burrows of the cicada killer wasp have been found to contain as many as 16 such cells.

The eggs of the cicada killer wasp will hatch within a few days; the live cicada will serve as a food source for the hatchling larvae. The hatched larvae will consume the still live but paralyzed cicada for up to 10 days, depending upon the size of the cicada and the number of eggs in the particular cell. The cicada is reduced to a mere shell of inedible exoskeleton parts during this time. The larvae now enter the pupae stage where they spin a silken cocoon and over-winter within the cell, emerging the following spring as a fully-fledged adult.

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23 Responses to “Cicada-killer Wasps”
  1. ladybaby Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 12:08 am

    I respect all insects. If they leave me alone, I leave them alone. Simple as that.

  2. Chambo Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 2:11 am

    Hey stickman,

    I had never heard of Cicada Wasps before this article. Don’t get many wasp species in NZ. In fact I only know of one but I’m sure theres more. Nice read.


  3. Papa Sparks Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Yikes! Cicada Wasps!

    Nice write up!

  4. I Have Had Enough Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 10:25 am

    I hate cicadas. When I was in the states they drove me nuts with their constant chirping, so long live the cicada wasp!

  5. CHAN LEE PENG Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Attractive and unique article with beautiful description. Have my liked it.

  6. Lostash Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Fascinating read. Not familiar with this species at all.

  7. agriculi Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Interesting topic, well written.

  8. Paul Roberts Says...

    On August 18, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Nice research and presentation. Fan, friend, smile

  9. lindalulu Says...

    On August 19, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Interesting article I learned something new today thanks to you Stickman!

  10. pablina Says...

    On August 22, 2009 at 5:05 am


  11. Louie Jerome Says...

    On August 30, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Very informative article and some amazing pictures.

  12. CutestPrincess Says...

    On August 31, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Nice article. It is very informative, and the picture is a plus to your piece.

  13. Aimee Says...

    On September 9, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I just saw one of these burrowing in my yard and searched the web and it brought me to this page. I am relieved to know they are not dangerous and kill annoying cicadas! Thanks for the information and good pictures!

  14. catlord Says...

    On September 9, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    I just this afternoon had a rather engaging conversation with one of the parents at my child’s school regarding the differences between the “Asian Giant Hornet” a.k.a. “Japanese Wasp” versus the milder, gentler and beneficial “Cicada Killer Wasp.” She heard that the ‘Japanese Wasp’ was in America; I am unsure. Sources available to me say no, it is not. Not yet anyway. It may have been the Cicada Killer Wasp. Unless beekeepers start losing entire colonies of honeybees, merely ’seeing’ this large wasp I would say that what the witness saw was the ‘Cicada Killer’ wasp.

    Apparently there was just recently a programme on “DISCOVER” channel about these wasps.

    Thanks for the feedback. It is good to know and hear that this information was useful.

  15. Dan B Says...

    On September 10, 2009 at 2:13 am

    great info..i was mowing the lawn when i thought i was being attacked by a huge yellow jacket. one was hovering close to me, while 1-2 more were farther back. i backed up the riding mower, and the one was hovering around the front wheels close to the ground, while the other one was at about eye level..watching me…i freaked and ran to the house and grabbed a can of quick knock down wasp spray…when i returned, the 2 further back were gone..the males …i think…but the one closest to the ground approached me..i sprayed it…it landed on the ground, i sprayed it again on the ground, it took off towards me, i sprayed it again, and it turned around mid-air, and flew off at a high rate of speed towards a treetop…have not seen it since…prior to this, i had no idea what these insects were. Now i realize that they are just bluffers and pretty much will not harm humans…thank you for the info…

  16. donna brown Says...

    On March 15, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    I’m glad I found your article on these gaint cicada killer bees. Last summer when my family and grandboy (1) was swimming and playing in the pool, we noticed what seemed to be a hornet flying around the pool. We were concerned for our safety. There was only l or 2. They were going under our deck around the pool and coming out with cicadas and flying away with them. Now that I know that they are not hornets, maybe we will be not as afraid. I am going to put Sevin out for them or some other treatment. I do not want them around me or my grandboy. This is the first time I have ever seem such a bee. They are not welcome.

  17. catlord Says...

    On March 16, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    My first reaction is “don’t kill it!” but you know, -it does sting (the female, anyway) but it is far less painful than a typical wasp sting.

    I have to confess that I finally knocked one of these outta the sky last fall, at my child’s school. After his morning class all the kids were on the playground and this ‘thing’ like a bumblebee on crack cocaine kept positioning itself on the top of the slide, about 3-feet above and just hovered! It would dart away like a BULLET and whip around very hummingbird-like and re-take its position again! The kids were terrified of this thing! The parents too!

    I took off my overshirt and used it like a cloth flyswatter and it took 6 or 7 tries of it zipping away and returning again before I finally whacked it to the ground and stepped on it. It looked for all the world like a regular wasp, only fatter and larger of course, and not nearly capable of the incredible speed and agility this thing had!
    I could easily see this thing being inquisitive, territorial, and hovering directly in front of someone’s face if they encroached upon their ground nest with a lawnmower… I doubt that it would maliciously sting an attacker, -but would also not want this around my kid either…

  18. Charles Says...

    On April 24, 2010 at 2:56 am

    I’ve seen 2 published accounts representing the sting as not only severe, but a trauma to not be forgotten for a lifetime. There is no mistake; they were speaking of cicada killers. How to reconcile the contradiction? Perhaps some stings have been received just AFTER the wasp emptied its load into its prey and the venom sac was not yet replenished, causing the conclusion that the sting is mild! As to size, it’s uncertain whether this species is the largest in N. America, or it’s the pepsis formosa (tarantula hawk). These ck wasps are reported up to 55mm which is a great deal longer than 1 inch. Worldwide, these 2, plus the Japanese hornet, are the 3 largest wasp species. The cicada killer is probably the most powerful flier of the 3. It does not fall fast to hornet spray as do red wasps. Reds however, are extremely aggressive, and are more dangerous as they are social.

  19. Charles Says...

    On April 24, 2010 at 3:02 am says “reports on the sting vary from mild to extremely painful” SEE that tends to suggest my theory. People who are on an agenda to popularize this wasp as not to be feared as to sting, are misguided. Mild stings come from wasps who just emptied their load, severe stings from wasps that have NOT!! My experience with them does confirm they are less aggressive than just about any other type wasp. That is no basis for discarding caution. Likeliest way to be stung is if barefoot and stumble on opening of nest.

  20. Sara Says...

    On August 29, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    I was just outside with my two year old son (we live in Iowa), and we watched a cicada killer wasp take down a live cicada, and then drag it across the grass and up a tree into a burrow in the tree. AMAZING. We were both enthralled, as were two other older kids outside. The wasp was HUGE, and it took down that cicada like it was nothing at all. Unreal. I had never heard of cicada killer wasps until witnessing this and then coming in to look it up. Wow.

  21. SharifaMcFarlane Says...

    On October 11, 2010 at 8:32 am

    First time hearing about them.

  22. mostpopulararticle Says...

    On December 21, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    This article has been indexed inThe Triond Experiment Thanks and goodluck!

  23. Ricardo Says...

    On July 14, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Very informative but you miss one important fact which is how can you tell the different between a male and female cicada killer

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