Stop and listen. Every tree is occupied by buzzing cicadas. Their vigor of their acoustic attack builds through the day, then dies away after dark, giving way to katydids.
We’re not the only species to tune into this sound. Cuckoos, blue jays, and other large-billed birds will grab cicadas when they can. But the champion hunter is the cicada killer, Sphecius speciosus, a large wasp that flies up into the trees in search of its prey.
The wasp grasps a cicada then tries to jab its stinger into the weak spots on the cicada’s exoskeleton. The cicada reacts violently — fighting for its life — buzzing its wings, writhing, and rolling. Often the tussling pair fall to the ground as they struggle. The cicada tries to break free while the wasp lances with the sharp stinger on the end of the abdomen. Spear and armor clash, then resolution comes. If the cicada can free itself, it takes wing and zooms away. The wasp does not follow, having no hope of recapture. But if the wasp’s poison finds its mark, the cicada falls into a deep sleep. This is no fairytale, no prince comes to waken the sleeper; instead, the mother wasp carries her prey to an underground tunnel where she buries it, alive but paralyzed, with a wasp egg. The larval wasp will fuel its growth by consuming the cicada.
Cicada killers have been active these last several weeks. They prefer to build their tunnels in well-drained sand, so the upper portion of the Lake Cheston “beach” has numerous holes, as do other sandy areas in town.
Cicada killer with paralyzed cicada. The wasp was dragging her prey across the sand toward a burrow.
The wasp is almost as long as my thumb. They look fearsome, but don’t attack humans unless molested. Unlike yellowjackets and bees, cicada killers don’t defend their nests from intruders and can be observed at close range.
Entrance to nest burrow. The cicada pictured above was laid to “rest” here.
Cicadas are big insects and the wasps often struggle to carry them. I was swimming in Lake Cheston a few days ago when a low-flying creature — I thought at first a hummingbird — flew across the water, losing altitude as it went. When it reached the lake’s center, the flier hit the water’s surface, dropped its excess baggage and shot away. I swam out to retrieve the cargo: a cicada bobbing on the water. Back on shore, Junebug (the dog, not the insect), wanted a look. Lacking a burrow and an egg, we left the cicada to its unfortunate fate.