Of all the calls I get from people in the parks, most revolve around bugs that might sting. We’re going to cover some of them today and cover more later. Bees and wasps fall in two categories; those that are social (those that live with others of their kind) and those that are solitary (don’t live with others). The ones more likely to sting are the social types.
One of the most reported wasps in the parks is the Cicada Killer Wasp (also known as Sand Hornets). These wasps, though fierce-looking and armed with a “dive-bombing” habit, are really generally docile. The ones heading towards your face are male and cannot sting you; the females, although equipped with a stinger, are very weak, can only deliver a mild sting and aren’t seen as often. They usually sting only if captured or mishandled. The bluff the males do can cause anxiety and panic as they patrol their underground nesting sites.
The best thing is to learn what they look like so that they can be avoided. Just the size is a good clue, females are about one and three-quarter inches with the male getting about one and one-fourth inches. They are black, red and yellow, the head is black and the legs are a bright orange-red. Observe what they do with their wings when they land. The wings are held straight in contrast to most other wasps that fold their wings to their body.
They often build their nests in sandboxes, sand traps at golf courses, or just about anywhere the digging is easy. Groups of individual tunnels can exceed 100 and last for many years. These wasps feed on tree sap and flower nectar as adults. The females fly around trees, shrubs meadows and such in search of their single prey, cicadas.
The female will fly into the cicada and stuns it so it falls to the ground, where she then uses her stinger to paralyze it. She then drags it through the entrance, down the tunnel and into the nesting chamber. The egg is then deposited on the legs and the chamber is then sealed off. In a few days, the larvae will hatch and start feeding on the cicada. It then overwinters in a brown-colored cocoon and will emerge in July.
Now, the next question is: “Do these wasps have any natural enemies?” If you happen to be hanging around where these Cicada Killer wasps are and you notice a bright red ant wandering around, do yourself a big favor and do not pick it up. It is not an ant at all.
This is an Eastern Velvet Ant, and is really a wasp. To give you an idea how powerful it is it is also known by the name “Cow Killer.” These are solitary wasps and the female does have a ferocious sting, however, they are not aggressive and being fast runners will try to escape if possible, let them.
They are about .75 inches long. The males have wings, the females do not and the males do not sting… They lay their eggs on Cicada Killer larva, the eggs hatch and the grub consumes the larva. I haven’t seen any in the parks, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Let’s talk about some really nasty fliers. Yellow Jackets may invade your picnic by the dozens. These guys are carnivores, feeding on insects and caterpillars. As the season progresses they tend to change their diet to obtain more sugar.
They nest in the ground, mostly old rodent burrows, and by the end of summer nests may contain thousands of individuals. They will aggressively defend their nests, and being easily provoked, will attack in force for hundreds of feet. Each yellow jacket can sting multiple times. Even the sound and vibration of a mower can trigger an attack. If you go after them, be careful: do it after dark and make sure you’ve got the right nest.
We’ll cover more stinging insects at a later date.