Issue 11, July 16, 2018

Cicada Killers

Cicada killer adult.

Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus) are large wasps, about 2 inches long, with red-brown heads, black bodies and yellow banding on their abdomens.  The size of these wasps can be distressing but they are unlikely to sting passers-by.  Males establish and patrol an aerial territory where they attempt to mate with passing females.  When a person or another cicada killer enters that territory, the male may approach in a way that seems aggressive.  While this behavior is intimidating, the males are incapable of stinging and they only intend to harm other male cicada killers.  They will leave when they realize you are not a threat or a potential mate.  Females dig into soil or sand creating a burrow (¼ – ½ inches in diameter) where they rear their young.  Females sting and paralyze cicadas, which they carry back to the burrow to feed their young.  Females may sting people but this typically only occurs if someone attempts to handle them or if they are stepped on.

Since these insects rarely sting and do not feed on plants, they seldom require control.  In some cases, the digging behavior can cause aesthetic damage which may spur property managers to treat the wasps.  Locations where bare soil or sand is available are preferred burrowing sites and large populations have the potential to cause significant aesthetic damage or become a nuisance.  Some locations where cicada killers can cause damage may include baseball diamonds, beach volleyball courts, sand traps in golf courses, playgrounds and areas with sparse turf.

When treatment is needed, chemical controls such as pyrethroids, carbaryl (Sevin Dust) or other pesticide labeled for cicada killers can be applied to the burrows.  When the females are gone, the males will leave the area as well.

In areas such as playgrounds and playing fields, where children and athletes may be in contact with the treated area, non-chemical control methods are preferred.  Cultural controls like mulching bare soil, encouraging dense turfgrass or planting ground-cover will make these sites less attractive to female wasps.  In many cases, educating concerned home owners about cicada killers can encourage understanding and tolerance. (Sarah Hughson)

Sarah Hughson

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