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Bug of the Week is written by "The Bug Guy," Michael J. Raupp, Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland.

Lookin’ for trouble: Male cicada killer wasps, Sphecius speciosus


Male cicada killer wasps are harmless and beautiful, well, unless you are another male cicada killer.


In previous episodes we visited dog day cicadas and the awesome wasps called cicada killers that utilize cicadas as food for their young. Last summer about this time I enjoyed cicada killers as they hunted prey and interred them in subterranean crypts in my landscape. Last week in advance of the appearance of the ladies, two male cicada killers established territories about twenty feet apart in my flower bed. So began a fierce competition for dominance of space and, I suppose, eventual access to the babes soon to emerge from the earth. Each morning shortly after sunrise, as the morning sun warms the land, two feisty males arrive at their respective perches, one on a short yew bush and the other on the nozzle of my garden hose. As you will see in the video, they are on high alert, frequently leaving their perch for a short flight.


One perched on a shrub, the other perched on my garden hose, these two fellows are pumped and looking for a tussle. Short forays from the perch sometimes result in spectacular aerial battles as each tries to lay claim to the territory where females will soon appear.  Video credit: Mike Raupp


Not quite understanding the thinking of the wasp mind, I imagine these forays are designed to provoke a battle with the other hopeful suitor. Occasionally, these sorties extend far enough from the perch that one male will enter the territory of the other. This results in a remarkable battle complete with frenetic buzzing and males interlocked in flight. It appears much biting and kicking goes on, as evidenced by the response of a cicada killer when I captured one and held it.


Although they appear fierce and perhaps even dangerous, male cicada killers pose no threat to humans or pets. Only females have a stinger, and try as he might, the male’s jaws and genitalia failed to puncture my skin.  However, I have heard tales of females delivering a memorable defensive sting when inadvertently stepped on or trapped under knee or hand. Video credit: Paula Shrewsbury


Eventually one breaks away and skedaddles toward my neighbor’s lawn with the victor in hot pursuit. But the victory seems fleeting. Male cicada killers either have remarkably short memories or indefatigable egos, as the aftermath of these vicious mêlées soon results in both males returning to their perches only to repeat the battle a short time later. Perhaps one sunny morning only one of these fierce flyers will remain and the vanquished will have departed for less ardently defended turf in search of his own mate.  But for now, with coffee in hand, this is the best early morning bug show in my garden.     


For more information about cicada killers, including videos of them in action, please visit Chuck Holliday’s magnificent cicada killer website: