Polk County Conservation

Cicada Killer Wasps

  • I was recently "buzzed" by something that looked like a large hornet or something. It was quite large and vicious looking. Its noise was intimidating. It flew into what looked like an anthill. I’m curious what it is, how dangerous is it, and is it native to Iowa?

    P.S. Someone told me they saw one snatch a cicada in mid-air.

    The wasp you saw was a cicada killer. They are Iowa’s largest wasp measuring up to two inches long. They are black with bright yellow stripes and rusty colored wings. Cicada killers are native to Iowa. They are very active in July and August when their prey, cicadas, are active. Cicada killers will attack, sting, and carry paralyzed cicadas to their underground burrows. The anthill you saw was their burrow. Once the paralyzed cicada is underground, the wasp lays an egg on it. When the egg hatches the wasp larva feeds on the cicada. The larva will develop into a wasp that emerges the following summer.

    I know these wasps look rather scary, but they are not dangerous. The cicada killer has the ability to sting, but won’t unless handled or threatened. Only the females are capable of stinging because the stinger is actually a modified ovipositor or egg-laying tube. Stings inflicted by cicada killers are not severe but reaction varies with each individual. These wasps are normally very docile and are unlikely to sting unless provoked. Wasps are beneficial insects and a nest in an out of the way location should be left alone.

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