The invasion of periodical cicadas is over, but a second insect invasion looms. Sphecius speciosus, the Eastern cicada killers, have begun to emerge. And they make the national media hype over the cicadas look rather misplaced. Hunting, warring, patrolling, tunneling, they do more in two months--the length of their adult lives--than periodical cicadas do in 17 years.
With bodies up to two inches in length, huge jaws, and glossy black paintjobs streaked with yellow, they are unmistakable, and more than a little intimidating. They emerge in July and August, to coincide with the hatching of annual-cycle cicadas, their sole prey--larger cousins of the periodical cicadas the nation watched so obsessively earlier this summer.
Cicada killer females construct burrows that are small wonders of engineering and effort. Several feet long, and featuring numerous individual brood chambers at their far end, they require the excavation of hundreds of times the insects' own weight in soil. The female killers manage the feat in just a few hours, using only their jaws and hind legs.
After that they hunt, for the so-called dog-day cicadas of genus Tibicen. A killer paralyzes a cicada with a single sting, but getting it back to the burrow can be an all-day affair. It may be three times the killer's own weight--too heavy to properly fly with. Instead she drags it up the nearest tree, then launches herself, prey in claw, and glides as far as possible toward her burrow. She may have to repeat the process half a dozen times.