Cicadas, cicada-killer wasps are back!

Cicada killer wasp, from Purdue University

Extensive rains delayed them a bit, but our annual cicada cycle started up with vigor sometime in the last ten days. For the past three years, we get the announcement at our house, not from the cicadas singing from the trees, but from the cicada-killer wasps that buzz our back patio area, scouting the yard for good places to bury their prey.

It started with one female burying cicadas under the patio; perhaps another joined her by the end of the first season. But last year, we had about a dozen buzzing about the yard. We have plenty of cicadas, so it should be good pickings for the wasps — so long as no one sprays insecticide on them.

These wasps are larger than most wasps, as long as 2.5 inches, and big enough to muscle a cicada around. The cicadas are twice as big, volume wise, but I suspect they weigh less. In any case, the wasps show outstanding strength and coordination in zooming around carrying their paralyzed victims to their holes — yesterday I saw a wasp rocket into a hole in the garden without the usual stop to drop the cicada and tug it in. The hole was a perfect fit. Jet air delivery.

The wasps leave us alone as we watch. We’ve never been stung, and I don’t know that these guys sting humans (unless attacked, and I assume they’d fight back).

Their ability to move dirt is amazing. We usually get a pile of soil about a foot around and three to six inches high at each hole.

So far as I know, down here in Dallas we don’t get any massive infestations of the the 13- or 17-year cicadas. I cannot imagine how such a feast might affect these industrious little guys, other than they might fly themselves to death. We lived through a double hatching of the 13- and 17-year cicadas in Maryland. Corpses of the cicadas made some streets slick enough they were dangerous to drive. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for a few thousand cicada killers then!

Cicada killers, or cicada hawks, sting and paralyze cicadas, then inter the still-living cicada with one egg laid in it for male larvae, or one egg with two cicadas, for female larvae. The wasp egg hatches and the larva consumes the fresh cicada; some of the wasps survive the winter, and I don’t know if the cicada is kept fresh the entire time, or if a few of the wasps hatch and go dormant.

My photos didn’t turn out as well as those from Purdue and Michigan State — the buggers are fast and restless. The photos could easily have come from our yard, with the massive blossoming of the yellow composites right now (“DYCs” in local horticultural parlance).

Watch your yard — you probably have these tiny “True Life Adventures” going on in your own backyard. You can encourage them with careful plantings, and especially by not spraying poisons (did I mention that between the predatory insects and the now-large geckoes that have taken up residence here, we don’t have cockroaches and other nasty house pests?).

The photo below shows a wasp carrying a cicada.

Cicada killer carrying cicada, from Michigan State U Extension

Update on resources (7-30-2008):

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47 Responses to Cicadas, cicada-killer wasps are back!

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Haven’t found anything specific to cicada hawk wasps killing hummingbirds, but accounts of other predators, and a few wasps who, I gather compete for food resources.

    See Hummingbird Society blog:

    And this from the Hummingbird Market, in Tucson:


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    (You’re not the Doug Miller from KSL Radio in Salt Lake City . . . are you?)


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    I’ve never heard of it — most cicada hawks can tell the difference, I think, and there are usually lots of cicadas, so no reason to go after hummers.

    Interesting question. There are some spiders in South America who will take a small hummingbird. Anyone else know?


  4. Doug Miller says:

    Will Cicada-killer wasps kill humming birds. I was mowing and thought I saw a humming bird go down a hole. I know they are cicada-killer holes and we have several hummingbirds around our feeders. I didn’t get a good look, just a glance and I could be mistaken. I could dig the hole out and check the contents, but it is right on the property line and don’t know what the neighbor would say if I was digging in his yard.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Just leave the cicada — I’ll wager the cicada hawk will come back for it, if you just leave it alone.


  6. Heather says:

    Thanks. I will watch it for a few days. However, I feel horribly knowing it’s pretty much a vegetable. I’m hoping it moves, but if not, not sure what to do with it. :(


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Generally, it stays paralyzed until the wasp larva consume it — could be several months. Generally, I’ve found wasps sometimes sting prey on opportunity, but know they have no place to stash the zombie — so they fly off, make a hole, and come back. Watch it over a couple of days and see. The cicada is a goner in any case — never seen one come back to animation (they stay alive, but immobile — nasty question, can they think and feel pain? Don’t go there . . .)


  8. Heather says:

    Question, when a cicada killer stings and paralyzes that cicada, how long does the cicada remain paralyzed for? I found a cicada killer stinging a cicada, but then flew away from it when it saw me. So, I’m assuming it is paralyzed, but I’m wondering for how long will it be paralyzed for and if it will come “back to life.”


  9. kali2012 says:

    Just so you know, all the hunting wasps are FEMALES, just like all ant workers and bee workers. males in this group of insects (hymenopterans) tend to be very short lived and quite useless other than impregnating the females.


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    I don’t know for sure how far north they range, but I’ve seen them in Wisconsin. It is likely there are two or three species with subspecies — you probably saw a cicada hawk.


  11. Laura C says:

    Could they be as far north as Albany, NY? I was on the playground with my daughter and I have never seen such a large hornet. It looked like it was definitely on a mission and wasn’t bothered by us. The hole in the nest was at least 3/4 inch and I only saw it on the way out. I know it is cicada season and I just wonder if we should be worried. I wouldn’t go near them.


  12. Ed Darrell says:


    You may want to contact your county extension agent to be sure of the species.

    If they are cicada killers, you could get rid of them in a normal year by keeping the yard well watered (they need drier soils to dig in).

    Are you, perchance, in the middle of one of the great cicada swarms, of 13- or 17-year flocks?


  13. John in Valparaiso,IN. says:

    I have hundreds of them in my yard and it seem to keep growing. I have 5 acres of land and they are swarming everywhere in my yard. Im afraid if I dont do something they will just keep multiplying! Last year I had them and they were in the middle of my yard and I had hundreds flying into a hold that was at least 8″ across and very deep I ended up pouring gas down the hole in the middle of the night and then filling it with dirt right away. They were gone but now they are back. ! If it were a few it would be ok but that is not the case. I have hundreds and its more then annoying and I dont want my Grand Kids around them. Any suggestions. I see two smaller holes about 3 feet apart where I have seen them carry their prey in. Would all of these wasps be in this one hole in the middle of the night or are they all living in differant quarters?


  14. We just spotted one in our backyard here in Southfield, MI. We had just seen a hummingbird at our nectar feeder and, at first, mistook it for the hummer. On taking a closer look–through our sliding glass door wall that it kept approaching–we saw that it was a huge wasp and found your article. Thanks for doing such a great job of describing what it looks like, for the excellent images, and for the research you must have done to learn about them when you first saw them.


  15. Courtney Winberrry says:

    anyone who feels the absolute need to get rid of the cicada killers without using pesticide can try this: buy a can of carpenters insulation foam from Home Depot or any hardware store. At dusk, when the cicada killer goes into the nest for the night, spray the foam into the hole using the long straw nozzle that comes with it. Almost immediately, the foam will solidify, thereby trapping the cicada killer in the nest. They don’t seem to dig themselves out again, I guess it basically suffocates them. I have tried this method before and it does work. I would have left them alone, but their digging was ripping out the roots of my flowers and killing them, so I had no choice!


  16. […] Cicada killer carrying cicada, […]


  17. Ed Darrell says:

    Nick and Carol: The plants love the newly aerated soil.

    2010 is slow for us so far — it’s been wet enough that I think it discourages digging, and with such a cold winter earlier this year, probably a lot of the larvae froze.

    Cicadas are slow, too — any of the cicada hawks that hatched may simply have moved on.

    But we’ve seen one. Summer is officially here.


  18. Nick & Carol says:

    We have a cicada wasp living in our back yard this year. We noticed it about 2 days ago and they sure can leave a pile of dirt.


  19. […] Most popular cicada-killer post, from 2007:  “Cicadas, cicada-killers are back!” […]


  20. Tanya says:

    I live in Wood County, WI and i noticed a cicada-killer wasp nest right in my small front yard. I have 2 small children so I am now making sure that they have shoes on at all times outside no matter what!


  21. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    It’s got one heck of a pound-your-head-on-wall painful sting … and like any wasp, it can sting multiple times.

    If you accidentally trap one – sit on it, step on it, or get it in your t-shirt it will sting.

    On the other hand, they will walk across your bare feet to get to a cicada and not sting – very single-minded predators.


  22. […] A post I wrote two years ago has been getting a lot of hits. In late July 2007 I wrote of the return of the cicada hawks, here in Dallas.  Each summer since, about the time the cicada hawks return, people start cruising the web to find out how to get rid of them, mostly (don’t, they’re practically harmless).   As I watched the traffic counts, I noticed that I had posted it on July 20 back in 2007.  I wrote that the wasps had been around for about ten days, then.  Last year I posted a welcome to the wasps on July 8. Cicada killer wasps on Boisenberry Lane, Dallas, 2008 – copyright Ed Darrell […]


  23. Pete says:

    I saw the largest Cicada Killer I’ve ever seen the other day. It was nearly 3″ long and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It is by far, the biggest one I’ve ever seen.

    I have them all over my property (I raise Pomegranates and they dig in the beds around my plants), I see them frequently and enjoy their presence. They are not concerned with humans or human activity other than a direct assault on them. I’ve never seen an aggressive female. They are too busy making preparations for the next generation of young to be bothered by humans.

    The only place we generally spray for insects is around the foundation of the house where we tend to get Black Widow Spiders in large numbers. We have grandchildren so we can’t take a chance with the Black Widows.

    My recommendation to anyone who has Cicada Killers on their property is to enjoy them through observation. They are more friend than foe.



  24. Bug Girl says:

    There were *lots* of wasps that we didn’t catch. No one was stung, but we are *professional* bug wranglers :)

    You’re probably right that the cicadas are unaffected by sprays, since they are underground. Only something systemic applied to the trees will get them.

    Of course, as we have more invasive species like the Asian Longhorn beetle or Emerald Ash Borer, those systemic pesticides are being used more commonly.



  25. Ed Darrell says:

    35! I hope that doesn’t seriously deplete the state’s supply.

    When our family moved to Utah in the early 1960s I got really well acquainted with cicadas. They were everywhere, every year, and annoyingly noisy. I don’t mind a couple of cicadas in a field, but 30 or 40 in the backyard can be deafening.

    So, last week I was in a meeting in a building where the grounds are regularly sprayed for “pests.” Hence, no cicada killers. But the place was over-run with cicadas — loud enough it drowned out the air conditioning and other noises inside the building.

    It seems to me that pesticides probably have less effect on cicadas than on the wasps, and that the noise in that place was a symptom of a micro ecosystem seriously out of balance. Utah in the 1960s had plagues of cicadas, grasshoppers and Mormon crickets, because the predators had been knocked out by crop spraying and other use of DDT and related pesticides. In our trip through the region this past summer, it seems the natural order had returned out of the cities. A few pleasant cicadas, a few grasshoppers, lots of insect-eating birds and lizards that were simply not around when I was a kid.

    Did anyone get stung in the wasp chasing? I wonder whether these guys will sting even in self defense.


  26. Bug Girl says:

    I was just coming by to tell you about a great afternoon spent chasing cicada killers!
    We have a large tree on campus that is slowly dying–apparently the weeping sap is a signal to the ck’s to come and look for newly emerged cicadas.

    The person teaching the intro entomology class was catching them to teach with–the big bodies make it easy for beginners to learn anatomy from.
    So, one person with a net and jars, in front of the entomology department, chasing giant wasps…I stopped to chat…so did someone else…it quickly turned into a swarm of entomologists and a swarm of giant wasps.

    Very amusing!
    They caught over 35 wasps. (despite our “help”)


  27. matt says:

    I was walking home from work when I saw this wasp attacking a cicada and then dragged it into a hole. I knew right away it was using it for it’s young. I thought it was an invasive species since I never have seen one before. I’m glad I stumbled onto this page!

    Hammond, Indiana


  28. Four Inch Cicada Hawk in a pear tree in Valparaiso Indiana August 2008!


  29. Ed Darrell says:

    If you want the wasps to move, keep the ground watered. They need dry ground to work with.


  30. Roy Pendergist says:

    I understand that these wasps can help with pests. This is my second season with them and they have made their home under our back patio. My daughters that are 4 and 6 don’t care and don’t believe that they will not harm them. I don’t feel really comfortable in trying to make them believe that. I don’t want them to trust all wasps, I was raised in the country and know for a fact that some wasps don’t need anything other than be too close or wrong place at the wrong time to get stung. So they just need to move their homes somewhere else.


  31. Ed Darrell says:

    Patricia, did you try Bug Guide?

    Tarantula Hawk wasp here:

    Blue-black spider wasp (looks black and red despite the name):

    Noodle around that site, see if your wasp is there.


  32. Ed Darrell says:

    Other wasps prey on other insects and arachnids. Disney used to have one of their “True Life Adventure” films on wasps that prey on spiders, and the spiders that prey on wasps. In a couple of those relationships, the spider and wasp sort of fight it out, and the winner lays eggs on the loser.

    You may have a different wasp preying on a different critter. Or you may have a color variant. The classic cicada killer is larger than most other wasps — the new ones that showed up at our house a few days ago are a good 2 inches long, maybe longer — and the holes they excavate for planting their victims will be nearly 3/8 inch across. Of course, they may be hatching out and leaving the holes you’re seeing.

    Watch and see what they do. If they come and go out of the hole, they are living there or preparing to use it for prey. If more than one wasp is using a hole, you’ve got a ground-dwelling wasp nest, and you may want to treat it differently.

    Generally, to get rid of them, all you’d need to do is make sure the ground is kept damp. Cicada killers have difficulty in muddy soil, and other wasps fear drowning. They’ll move.


  33. Patricia says:

    I am finding little holes in the ground and everything i read point to these cicada killers but the ones we have are black with small red markings. All I can find online is yellow and black ones. I dont want to kill them if they arent going to be a threat I just want to know what they are. Any Suggestions?


  34. erinp says:

    Our season hasn’t quite started. We are trying to keep our lawn watered and moist to avoid the dive-bombing wasps! Ours seem to hole-up right by our front door and greet us when we get home from work.


  35. Ed Darrell says:

    Good grief!

    If they are cicada killers, they will be large — 2 inches, at least.

    Release them out of doors.

    I suspect they are either hatching in your chimney, or they are burrowing too deeply into something near your chimney (and you have a heat leakage problem, as well as a potential path for vermin).

    Call your county agricultural extension agent. If your flue is closed, I suppose you should leave it that way — but if they are cicada killers, I would think they would go up and out, if it were open.

    They don’t hive. They don’t swarm. They want to save their venom for cicadas. Just get them outside, and inspect the chimney!


  36. laurie says:

    My daughter and I have found 5, what we believe to be, Cicada killer wasps in our family room. They seem to be coming from the fireplace. I have trapped them under drinking glasses and am waiting for my husband to get home! Is it normal for them to get inside a house? What do I do to get rid of them? Thanks, Laurie, Raleigh, NC


  37. Bug Girl says:

    What Suzanna is describing does not sound like a cicada killer at all, but one of the social hornets.
    Without knowing more, though, I won’t guess a species.

    When in doubt about how to treat an insect problem, *always* contact your extension service! They can tell you the most effective control for your area–and it will be a heck of a lot safer than pouring gas over something.


  38. Ray C. says:

    Magicicada, when it comes out, comes out earlier in the year than the annual cicadas. The mighty Brood X last appeared around April 2004. I might expect, then, that these wasps would ignore the periodical cicadas, since they would have to keep several months longer to get the larvae through the winter.


  39. Ed Darrell says:

    First, let me say that I’ve been stung by wasps before, and yellow jackets (which are closely related), when I mowed over their hole. They swarm out on those occasions (I think the vibrations of the mower especially bother them, and once I had accidentally parked the running mower on their hole, so when I moved I got a lot of angry insects). This behavior is much different from cicada killers.

    Cicada killers are lone hunters. They don’t swarm. There won’t be more than one wasp per hole. Cicada killers use their venom to hunt, and so they need to preserve it for hunting. All of that suggests to me your neighbor didn’t run over cicada killers, but some other, hiving wasp, or hornet, or yellow jacket. Their stings will hurt a lot more, and several stings can put you down for a couple of days (though, almost paradoxically, it can help with arthritis pain on some people — go figure).

    Cicada killers’ holes will be larger — a few of ours are 3/8 inch across. Most of them go into the ground at an angle, and there’s a mound of soil outside the hold from their digging (you won’t see this with hiving insects, usually). And, again, the only active wasp there will be the one female who is burying cicadas with eggs on them. I’d go so far as to say that if you’ve got two or more wasps in one hole, they are not cicada killers.

    If you have cicada killers, I’d urge you to leave them alone.

    And cockroaches? We use baits, but the best thing we did was to put in a lot of organic material in the flower beds in the yard, which encouraged the pill bugs/rolly-polys/wood lice. Turns out that wood lice prey on cockroach eggs. That also brought us some geckoes (which have invaded Dallas recently), and they prey on cockroach hatchlings and adults. When we stopped poisoning everything, our cockroach count dropped to almost zero. We occasionally get one in the house now after two or three very dry weeks.

    Poisoning will also kill birds, toads, shrews and bats in the neighborhood, all of which will eat your mosquitoes and harmful caterpillars if you don’t spray.

    My advice? Watch one of the holes. If you have one wasp, especially if you see a wasp carrying in a cicada, don’t swat at them and don’t catch them in your hands — they’ll leave you alone and go about their business. If it’s a different species, especially if it hives, check with your local county agricultural extension service about non-poison methods of control, if there are any.

    Gasoline will kill ’em. It will also contaminate the soil (be sure you’re far away from any natural springs.) That’s overkill, I think. You should be able to find an insecticide that will break down, and which won’t kill plants, as gasoline will. (Alcohol would kill ’em, too, and be somewhat less damaging; alcohol kills plants, too.)

    Check out Prof. Chuck Halliday’s site at Lafayette U on cicada killers:

    He says:

    I believe that you are in more danger from pesticides applied to your lawn to kill cicada-killers than from the wasps. People often feel that the wasps deny them the use of their yards, but they should also be aware that many pesticides also temporarily deny them the use of the area which is sprayed, particualrly so for children and pets. This, of course, is the same area that the wasps deny them the use of.

    He says you can persuade them to leave with water — they want well-drained soil, not wet soil. Read his piece on how get rid of them, and why you shouldn’t bother, here:

    Good luck!


  40. Suzanna says:

    Recently, we discovered that we have these cidada killers. One day I was watering my flowers and after I had passed by what I now know was the hole of one of these, it tracked me down and circled me. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned.

    My mother told me of a gentleman recently who was attacked by a swarm of them after he ran over their hole, accidently, with his vehicle tire. (She knows this individual, personally.) They circled around his abdomen and stung him. She said he said it nearly drove him mad as he was trying to get them off of himself. Apparently, he did not go to the doctor and was severely sick for three weeks from the stings. The descriptions that I have read about how deep their nest for the larvae is, doesn’t jive with this man’s account, given it seems the burrow is not that deep, and thus couldn’t hold that many cicada killers. He described the wasps to someone who confirmed that they were indeed cicada killers.

    So, to make a long story short, it was suggested to me to go out at night and pour gasoline down the hole to kill them, so as to be sure they would not hurt any of our children. I am not quite sure what to do. I don’t want to harm these things, yet, even if cockroaches are only going about their business if they invaded my home, I would still exterminate. Any suggestions?


  41. Bug Girl says:

    Oh! How did I miss this!
    Yeah, they do hurt when they sting, but you are correct they aren’t that aggressive unless you bother them.


  42. Ed Darrell says:

    Mow around the holes if you know the wasp is in — but generally, these guys are much less hostile than almost all other wasps. They probably won’t attack if you don’t swat them directly. OR get one caught in your shirt (see post above yours).


  43. heath says:

    we probably have about a dozen cicada killers. any tips on mowing my lawn, and will they attack when i drive across with my mower


  44. My brother was stung by one of these back in about ’65. We think he rode his bicycle into it and it got caught in his shirt, he panicked… He went into shock and had trouble breathing, he turned red and skin began sloughing off the sting area. The hospital was nearby and my father transported him there immediately. They gave him a shot of something.

    The doctor told my parents that my brother was simply allergic, and that cicada killers were not otherwise dangerous. After that, we avoided all wasps and bees.


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