Society

Nature's muffler

Large 'killer' wasp likes area's soft sand, plentiful cicada population
By KEN ESTEN COOKE Reporter Publisher

Leon Hammett's golf buddies didn't believe him when he described the violent scene in his yard: An aggressor stuns its victim, then drags its still live body into its den where it is used as feed for its young.

Eastern cicada killer wasp with a fresh catch. This one dragged the cicada into her den after stunning it. She will plant her eggs inside the cicada and the young will use it for food. Eastern cicada killer wasp with a fresh catch. This one dragged the cicada into her den after stunning it. She will plant her eggs inside the cicada and the young will use it for food. Sound like a Steven King horror novel? It's just nature's way with the Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp.

His friends thought he was nuts. But upon inspection there is, indeed, an active community of the large wasps and they do, indeed, "bring home the bacon" for the next generation.

A wasp stuns a cicada with a sting, then drags the still live body back to its den, which it digs out in the soft sugar sand in the area. While in the den, the female lays her eggs inside the cicada's still live body. When the eggs hatch, they use the carcass for food.

Hammett first began noticing the mounds in his yard between his driveway and that of neighbor B.F. Cook on Alcoa Street.

Leon Hammett points out the activity in more than a dozen cicada killer wasp mounds in his yard. Leon Hammett points out the activity in more than a dozen cicada killer wasp mounds in his yard. "They sound like a hummingbird or a bumblebee," Hammett said of the sizable wasps.

With their black and yellow stripes, they can be mistaken for bumblebees as well. Far larger than an ordinary red wasp—up to two inches long—the cicada killers make a person give pause before approaching them.

Last week the active wasps were busy digging their holes, creating mounds of fresh white sand that dot the landscape between the two homes.

"They like that soft sand. With as much sugar sand as we have here, there ought to be billions of them," he joked.

Wasp's world

Hammett did some digging of his own on the internet and found out more about the unusual creature and its habits.

The "Eastern Cicada Killer" is found throughout the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. and also throughout Texas and into Mexico and Central America.

It's commonly called a "sand hornet," though it's not technically a hornet at all.

Cicada killer females don't bother defending their nests—they let the males take care of that. She's using her strength for reproduction.

The female uses its sting to paralyze the cicada, whose buzzing summer song is familiar to Texans. She then drags the cicada, sometimes twice her size, down into her burrow.

She lays one male egg on the cicada body, then closes up the hole. Female eggs are given two or three cicada bodies because the female is twice as large as the male and must have more food.

Eggs hatch in a day or two and the cicadas are breakfast, lunch and dinner for the larvae. Those larvae continue to develop in an earth-coated cocoon during the winter, then pupate in the spring and the cycle begins again.

The males are often busy challenging each other for bragging and breeding rights (seems to be a universal trait). Though males are aggressive toward other insects, it is harmless to humans as it cannot sting.

Catch them while you can and see their fascinating behavior. They are only present from early July until roughly mid-September.


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2009-07-16 digital edition



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