Cicada killers: Menacing wasps can take down prey 3 times their size
These predatory insects might just be a cicada's worst nightmare.
Tue, Aug 26, 2014 at 04:37 PM
These wasps might be the most terrifying creatures in the world. That is, if you happen to be a cicada, or at least a very cicada-empathizing human.
Meet the cicada killer, a wasp in the genus Sphecius, so named because it hunts cicadas, then provisions its morbid nest with their bodies. Interestingly, only the female wasp does the hunting, and it doesn't eat the cicadas that it catches. Rather, it merely paralyzes them and leaves their still bodies for its babies to consume after hatching.
This has got to be a cicada's worst nightmare.
Cicada killers can grow rather large, over one and a half inches long. Their abdomens are often painted with black and yellow stripes, similar to a yellow jacket. They're found on the edges of forests, but gardens and waste places can also harbor them. After hibernating most of the year, they emerge in the spring and are most commonly seen buzzing around in their adult form in the early summer.
The first thing they do after developing into their adult form is mate. The males then die, but the females live on, build their nests and begin hunting. Cicada killer nests are burrows typically dug about 6 inches deep in soil. Inside the burrow, the female builds several oval-shaped (and cicada-sized) chambers to place her future victims in.
Once she finds a cicada, she attacks with her stinger, which paralyzes the much larger prey. She then carries the victim, which can weigh as much as three times her own weight, back to the burrow and lays an egg on top of it. She needs one cicada for every egg she plans to lay, so by the end of the process, paralyzed cicada bodies litter her nest.
A few days later, a wasp larva hatches from each egg, and the hungry newborns immediately begin consuming the cicadas. By the time they're done 'licking their chops,' only the empty exoskeletons of the cicadas remain. Having eaten their fill, the larvae then spin cocoons and hibernate for the winter until emerging to repeat the whole process again the following spring.
Despite their reputation as deadly cicada killers, female adults also have a sweet tooth. They're largely vegetarian in their adult form, preferring to suck on flower nectar.
So when you're enjoying the summer buzz from these busy pollinators, just remember: there could be a basement full of paralyzed cicadas awaiting their death somewhere beneath your garden.
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