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The Buzz

Cicada Killer Wasps' Annual Rampage in Full Swing

A cicada killer wasp living up to its name. (Photo via Shutterstock)

There may be no living creature with a more brutally appropriate name than the cicada killer wasp. It's not necessarily what they do, but how they do it that may send shivers up your spine.

But don't worry. These two-inch-long wasps with yellow stripes and orange spots on their black bodies aren't out to paralyze you, then lay an egg in just the right spot so the resulting larva can eat you alive. You're safe. The cicadas? That's a different story.

The wasps have been compared to being as creepy as the creatures in "Aliens," and for good reason.


Here's how it all goes down

The cicada killers start appearing in late June and into July, timed perfectly with the emergence of the annual cicadas. The activity of both bugs is in full swing and thanks to some eagle-eyed nature lovers on the Will County Wildlife Facebook group, we've had numerous sightings of the wasps getting the upper hand in the cycle of life.

The scene that's unfolding in forest preserves and local yards is fairly amazing and anything but an easy process.

The adult female wasp starts by preying on a cicada and using a venomous sting to paralyze it so the cicada can be transported to the wasp's burrow. Those burrows can be several feet long and require the wasp to excavate soil that's several hundred times its own weight. To put it in perspective, it would be the equivalent of an average American male moving 20 tons or more of dirt by hand.

The cicada can be up to three times as heavy as the wasp, so flying it back may not always be an option. Dragging or carrying it can end up being an all-day affair, because the burrow could be more than 100 yards away.

With the cicada still alive, the wasp lays an egg under the left or right second leg of the cicada, close to the puncture wound from the sting. This is important, because once the egg hatches in two or three days, the larva will begin eating the cicada alive, using the puncture wound as its entry point. That process will play out for up to two weeks until the new wasp spins a cocoon, where it will remain until it's time to emerge the following summer.

"It sounds a little brutal," said Allen Lawrance, a living invertebrate specialist for the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. "But those cicadas are really big and juicy; it's a great source of nutrients for their children."

Perhaps the only thing bigger and juicier than a cicada was the wolf spider that had also been implanted with wasp larva that completely consumed the spider from the inside out.



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