Cicada Killers of New England
News Category: Cicada Projects
Cicada Killers of New England
This year I discovered the very fascinating Cicada Killer Wasps (Sphecius speciosus) here in Massachusetts. If you have been reading the blogs for this year, you know about all the information that I have collected on these amazing insects.
While seeking further knowledge on Cicada Killer wasps I found Professor Chuck Holliday from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who has been studying these insects for several years now. I firmly believe in helping others out in their various fields of study especially in the sciences and particularly in the field of Entomology. After all, this web site would not be here if it wasn't for the help of others.
So I always like to lend a hand wherever and whenever I can. I, in turn, seek your help as well so we can help Professor Chuck Holliday.
The Cicada Killer Wasp Species in New England
It is believed that there is only one species here in our part of the Northern United States and that is the Sphecius speciosus species of Cicada Killer wasps. You can easily recognize these wasps by their unique size. The males average anywhere from an inch to an inch and a quarter while the females can be anywhere from an inch and a quarter to two inches long. Below are some pictures of Cicada Killer Wasps:
What Do They Do?
The males stake out little areas of territory and defend it from all other males. At the same time, they attempt to mate with a female should one enter into its defended area.
Once mated, the female digs a series of underground burrows. Each burrow can have many chambers branching off in different directions. Cicada killer adults do not feed on Cicadas, they actually feed on nectar until it is time to mate. These burrows are for a female Cicada Killer wasp's larva. Once the burrow is completed, it goes out and hunts for a Cicada. The female will sting a Cicada which only paralizes it and then flies back with it to the burrow. It will then lay one egg on the cicada. The egg will then hatch and the larva will feed on the cicada. Even though the cicada is only paralized, it is very much alive! Once the larva has eaten the cicada it will pupate over the long winter and emerge in early July as a fully formed adult cicada killer.
Mom Decides Who Will be a Boy and Who Will be a Girl
Before the female Cicada Killer hunts Cicadas, it must decide whether it wants a male or a female cicada killer. If it wants a female, then the egg it is carrying is injected with sperm. Then the female Cicada Killer will then obtain two cicadas for the egg injected with the sperm to feed upon when it hatches.
If the female wants the egg it is carrying to be male, it will not inject it with sperm and only hunt for one cicada for the male cicada killer larva to feed upon.
Once a larva has one or two Cicadas to feed on the female will then seal the chamber inside the burrow and then dig another chamber. One Cicada Killer can catch as many as 16 total cicadas, one or two for each larva and may dig as many burrows for each.
These Are Wasps! Should I Be Afraid?
Not at all. These wasps despite their intimidating appearance are really quite docile. I have laid down on my stomach in the middle of a lek to film a cicada killer female digging a burrow. They were flying all around me and I was never attacked. I have even handled male and female wasps with my hands and I was never stung.
Note: A lek is a gathering place of a species, specifically for males to display and attract females for breeding.
However, I wouldn't suggest you sit on one or try to crush one with your hands because then they may sting. Especially the females because they are known to have stingers (for stinging Cicadas) but the males do not have stingers. You do not have anything to fear from these Cicada Killer wasps.
Cicada Killer Mating Frenzy.
Sometimes the competition to mate with a female cicada killer among males can be fierce as evidenced by the thumbnail to the left. While surveying cicadas at a Swansea, MA cemetery, I heard a helluva ruckous going on in the grass that sounded like a bunch of angry bees and what I was able to discover was just a big ball of male cicada killers rolling and tumbling around in the grass.
From what I learned from Professor Chuck Holliday, I knew that somewhere under that pile of male cicada killers was a female that all these males were trying to mate with. This being my third year in studying these insects this was the first time that I have witnessed this amazing phenomenon. It was like a bunch of 10 year olds all in a giant "pig-pile". Some males would fly off but only to be replaced by other males. Other males would fly away only to return at a different angle to try to gain a better purchase on the female.
I watched these guys for about 30 minutes then decided to drive around. I was gone for about an hour. When I returned, the mating frenzy was over. I would assume that one of the males was successful in mating with the female. I even noted several different male and female cicada killers that were flying around encopula (connected via the genetalia). Click the thumbnail to the left to watch a brief movie of the frenzy and the competition involved between all these males as they try to mate with the female.
These Wasps ARE NOT Your Enemy.
I get a lot of email from people who are only too happy to provide data about cicada killers that they have at their locations. But most after providing this information via the online form, ask how to get rid of them?
First of all, I'm not about the eradication of Cicada Killers, I'm about their study and observing their behavior. They are truly an amazing insect so please do not ask how to get rid of them. You might as well ask me the best method to kill a baby seal. It just isn't going to happen.
To prove my point as to this wasp's docile nature, take a look at this first photo. I offered this male cicada killer my finger to perch on. It happily sat there for at least 10 seconds then went off to chase another male
I even mustered up enough courage to pick up that ball of mating cicada killers knowing full well that there was a female mixed in there somewhere. But still, I never had a problem. Even with this ball of cicada killers in my hand, males were still coming and going, landing right in my hand to try to get in on the action. Click the thumbnails below for a closer look.
Determining Male from Female Cicada Killers.
One obvious way to determine a male cicada killer from a female is the female's comparatively larger size. However according to professor Chuck Holliday there are several ways in determining males from females and I quote:
"You can tell females from males by the large pair of spurs at the junction of tibia and tarsus on the last pair of legs on the females only. They also have one less segment in their antennae and abdomens than the males do, but this is harder to see. About 10% of females are in the males size range, but 90% are larger than males."
So taking the large size out of the equation to allow for those 10% of females that fall into the size range of males, that leaves for a sure identifying factor the spurs at the junction of tibia and tarsus as Chuck mentions above. Click the thumbnail to the left to note the large size spurs on a female. Even in this picture this particular female is extremely larger than its male counterparts.
The male does indeed have small spurs compared to the female. Click the thumbnail to the right for a closer view. It is believed that the female's larger spurs may help it in moving the dirt around during the excavation of a burrow. I also believe that these larger spurs may actually aid the female cicada killer in carrying the stung and paralyzed cicada prize.
Let the Females do the Work.
Cicada killer females have proven themselves to be quite useful when doing distribution work on the cicadas of New England. Especially when access to lands are extremely limited due to "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signs everywhere. Using cicada killer females as a means for obtaining cicada voucher specimens in a given area is an excellent fall-back plan if you can find them. Typically large sunny open areas with tall trees nearby and sandy soil for digging burrows seems to be ideal.
In the images below, it would seem that these cicada killers were bringing in nothing but Tibicen lyricen cicadas which proved somewhat what I was hearing calling in the trees. What I found really strange was that these females were bringing in only male Tibicen lyricen cicadas. Out of 5 specimens that I snatched away from the females, all 5 were male.
Note that one of the males (top right) is actually only a few hours from the teneral stage. I have noted this previously where a cicada killer female actually took a paralyzed T. canicularis teneral no more than an hour from completing the molting process.
You can see the differences in color patterns and varying degrees of pruinosity in the above 5 specimens. Even in the group photo to the right. Click the thumbnail to enlarge. It's these slight morphogical differences which often confuse people greatly when attempting to identify cicada species. However, in all 5 photos above, there are two constants which help in keying the cicadas as T. lyricen and that is that the pronotal collars are all black and there is the black medial band that runs the entire length of the underside of the abdomen.
What Can I Do?
Massachusetts Cicadas is trying to compile a distribution map of all cicada species in the United States with a particular focus on the Cicadas of New England. This of course, one might assume is a huge undertaking. But with the inception of the World Wide Web which makes communication and the seeking of information virtually instantaneous it is a great time for everyone who is online to be able to contribute because it can bring everyone together with a mere click of a mouse.
The county you saw them in.
The town or city you saw them in.
Actual address of the Cicada Killers.
Time of day.
Date you saw them.
Pictures of them if possible.
If possible cicada specimens taken by Cicada Killer females.
What Parts of New England Are Needed?
Basically all over New England. If a valid report of a cicada killer is spotted complete with burrows then Massachusetts Cicadas would like the opportunity to visit the site location in order to ascertain cicada species in the area. There are areas of New England where Cicada and Cicada Killer information is extremely lacking especially in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. So any cicadas or cicada killer information that you may stumble upon from these three states would be especially appreciated.
If a Cicada Killer May Sting, How the Heck Do I Get A Cicada Away From One?
First of all, I have never known a female Cicada Killer to sting anyone. You would probably have to catch them with your hands and crush them in order to be stung at least by the females. But I feel it is better to be safe than sorry. The following is an outline of how you can go about collecting cicada specimens from Cicada Killers:
- First, locate active Cicada Killer burrows with Cicada Killers still in them.
- Watch closely and wait for the females to fly off to hunt for cicadas.
- Some will not fly off right away, they will orient themselves by making a series of low flights around their burrows just so they know where it is in relation to other burrows. They eventually make wider and wider turns away from the burrows then fly back to them. They may do this several times before they fly off.
- Now that they are gone, put a stick or two down the burrows' entrance. You may need two sticks because the entrances may be large to allow the cicada to be dragged down.
- After about 1/2 hour to an hour some of the Cicada Killers will come back to their burrows with cicadas. Some others won't. For the ones that come back without cicadas, simply remove the sticks and let them enter.
- The ones that do will wonder what the heck happened to their entrances and struggle to get their cicadas down the burrow.
- During all the confusion, grab the cicadas by the wing tips and gently pull them away from each Cicada Killer along the ground. Don't be distressed if the Cicada Killer female makes a lot of mad "buzzing" type noises, it's all a bluff. Eventually she will let go. Make sure that you grab the cicada by the wing tips and drag it along the ground in the opposite direction that the Cicada Killer will be pulling it almost like playing tug-of-war. You have to be quick because they can move fast with a cicada in their possession.
- I have also been successfull in gently batting the cicada away from Cicada Killers. You can try this method too. But once you grab the cicada after batting it away, walk away from the Cicada Killer's burrow. She will continue to look for the cicada but if you aren't in the general area of her burrow, then you will be fine. At some point however, you may have to remove the stick so that she may inspect her burrow before she flies off again to hunt for another cicada to replace the one you just stole.
If you can help provide this information it will be greatly appreciated and you will have our heart-felt thanks.