This has been an odd winter in Northeast Ohio. The season has been mostly snowless and warmer than usual. Precisely the type of winter I despise. If it’s going to be winter I’d prefer to have a thick sustained layer of snow across the landscape and a crisp windless day for which to enjoy strolling through said winter wonderland. I know a lot of people say winter is depressing and ominous but there is something infinitely more unsettling to me about a winter that is snowless and lukewarm. I personally have no desire to see denuded brown trees looming over dull muddied grass all set before a gloomy grey panorama of sky.
While pondering this failed attempt at a season I was reminded of a story from a recent season that was less of a disappointment.
This past summer I stumbled upon a wonder of nature previously unknown to me. Some might describe it as a terror best left to obscurity. Others would classify it as a specialty of niche predation which exemplifies the intricacy of evolution. Though I suppose I might be getting ahead of myself. To the beginning!
I work at a desk, and not some fancy post-modern work space designed for maximum ergonomic comfort, but just a traditional computer, chair, desk type of desk. Therefore I try to get up from my seat and get myself into motion whenever possible.
During my lunch breaks I’ve taken up walking around the manicured lawns and parking lots of the office park. Rain, or shine. Sleet or hail. Every day at 1:30 I stretch my legs enjoying what limited range of nature is allowed to remain among the concrete and asphalt.
As the summer escalated and the “park” aspects of the office park were at their greenest and most active I began to regularly encounter wasps. Not just any wasps mind you, huge bright orange wasps with perpetually vibrating wings and a pretty intimidating complexion. These wasps were always at the same spot during my circuit around the parking lot, along a stone retaining wall. The wall is at the edge of the office park where the complex abuts against an actual park (a small municipal park which is little more than a glorified walking trail).
Anywho these wasps were particularly active and seemingly abundant. If I found myself walking too close to the wall I’d inevitably encounter several of the orange behemoths zooming out from their roosts to encircle my head menacingly. I at least assumed it was threatening though I never found myself chased by wasps or even encircled by them for more than a moment. I did my best not to antagonize the inch long creatures but also didn’t hang around too long to find out how frightening they could be.
Regardless, I was now curious.
Every day I’d try to observe a little more about the wasps as I’d pass the wall. I learned that the wasps emerged from small holes burrowed in the narrow strip of dirt between the curb and the wall. Each of the holes seemed to be guarded by a single wasp. As I would pass the sentinel wasps would launch themselves into the air and pass uncomfortably close until I hurriedly went on my way. Strangely I never saw the wasps anywhere else throughout the park. I mean I’m no wasp expert but these were fairly big bugs and hard to miss. Yet I only seemed to see them by their nests and not out and about sunning themselves on leaves or carrying off small children.
“Mind ya business square, find another flower to sniff.”
As the summer went on my interest in the wasps waned and I would simply cast the insects a sidelong glance and a how-do-you-do as I walked past the wall. During hotter days I would wander into the cooler refuge of the small municipal park. While on milder days I would sit on the lawn, in the shade of the commercially planted trees which are evenly spaced along the edge of the parking lot and I’d scribble out a few lines of compulsory, sun induced poetry.
It was while sitting in the grass one day, in the shade of a small tree, that my interest in the wasps returned to the forefront. Out of the blue a loud buzzing sound erupted from somewhere in the tree. I could hear rustling and leaves being batted around. By the sound of it I was convinved it had to be a bird but why was it buzzing and falling? I quickly closed my notebook and waited to see if my questions would be answered. Then the falling, buzzing, rustling sound grew closer and came crashing out of the tree to land only a few feet away from me.
I instantly recognized the shape of a large cicada.
That explained the buzzing. However I quickly realized the cicada wasn’t alone and was in fact wrestling around on the ground with the biggest wasp I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and not just any wasp, it was one of my wasps from the wall only bigger! Cicada’s are no small things themselves and this wasp was lording over the cicada, easily a full two inches in length.
I quickly realized that this was a fight to the death and the wasp clearly wasn’t about to lose. The enormous wasp repeatedly jabbed its stinger into the abdomen of the struggling cicada until finally the buzzing died down and the cicada went still.
That’s when the crunching began.
Scooting in as close as I dared I could see the wasp already chewing on it’s prey and I could clearly hear the working jaws crunch the insects exoskeleton.
It was about this time that I realized I was really close to this scene and I really had no idea what it was or how temperamental it could be. It was also about this time that the wasp took the air in tight circles around her kill and that brought her in close proximity to me!
I decided it was time to make a hastey retreat but I vowed to return to the spot after work to see exactly what was left of the cicada.
Spoiler alert: nothing was left.
Well of course I had to finally know what kind of exotic giant wasps I was dealing with. As soon as possible I googled “Wasp that kills cicadas” and was immediately rewarded with the most obvious google response I’ve ever encountered.
Did you mean: Cicada Killer Wasp?
Yup that’s what they’re called. Sphecius speciosus The Cicada Killer Wasp or Cicada Hawk. They apparently exclusively eat cicadas and are crucial in keeping cicada populations in check. They are solitary wasps and the females are larger and seem to do most of the actual cicada killing. That was the lovely example I met beneath the tree. The males remain back at their underground lairs guarding the nests.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about these voracious killers (they have killer in the name) is that they are quite docile. The females have stingers with some degree of toxicity but are reportedly not that painful for humans. Males just have barbs on their tails which they use for defense or frighten off rival males. For the most part however the Cicada Killer Wasps are gentle giants and not at all aggressive. It even states on Wikipedia regarding the males: “Although they appear to attack anything that moves near their territories, male cicada killers are actually investigating anything that might be a female cicada killer ready to mate.”
So even the close encounters when walking past the wall was just the wasp equivalent of cat calling. Clearly I wasn’t what any of them were looking for. Always the wasp’s maid, never the wasp. Le sigh.
Anywho it was an interesting discovery for me and one that I thought worth sharing with all you dear readers! Take a look at the Cicada Killer page on Wikipedia, read up on these gentle giants, and keep an eye out for them. Maybe you could even do them a solid and toss a cicada their way once in a while!
That is all!