Watch This Killer Wasp Drag Home an Unfortunate Cicada Snack

New video of a large wasp dragging an even larger cicada features an insect found across much of North America, but which has become newly attention-grabbing because of its similarity to the so-called "murder" hornet.

Taken by a Newsweek editor in Westchester, New York, the video (above) doesn't show an Asian giant hornet—the world's largest hornet, native to Asia but found in Canada and Washington state this year—but instead a specimen of Sphecius speciosus, more commonly known as the eastern cicada killer. The confusion of the two species has become common enough that insect researchers have released explainers to help people differentiate the two species.

The confusion between the cicada killer wasps and the Asian giant hornet has kept the entomologists at Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service busy since Governor Greg Abbot asked the university to establish a task force to prepare for the possible arrival of the invasive species in Texas.

So far, the murder hornet hasn't appeared in Texas, but entomologists Holly Davis and Patrick Porter have identified hundreds of insects submitted by Texans as possible murder hornets. Porter told Texas A&M Today that about 80 percent of these have been cicada killer wasps.

In response, Davis and Porter released a video explaining the differences between murder hornets and their native Texan lookalikes.

While the Asian giant hornet has a wide, orange head that stands out from its dark thorax, as opposed to the cicada killer's narrow, color-matching head, it's the difference in stripes that make separating a murder hornet and a cicada killer simplest. While the murder hornet has smooth stripes, the cicada killer's are peaked, with a yellow and black contrasting pattern that almost doesn't look like stripes at all.

"Cicada killers are fascinating insects and despite the fact they are huge, to some scary looking, wasps are actually beneficial to us," Davis, an entomologist at Texas A&M, told Newsweek in response to emailed questions.

Unlike the Asian giant hornet, which can be aggressive enough to sometimes inflict multiple stings, Davis emphasized that the cicada killers aren't typically a danger to humans, even if their stinger can still pack quite a wallop.

"I cannot emphasize enough that the females are not aggressive!" Davis said. "The very few stings I have heard about happened when people were messing with the cicada killers and placed them in a situation where they had to defend themselves. I have never, ever heard of a person getting stung, unprovoked, by a female cicada killer."

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An eastern cicada killer specimen, collected from Bronx Park and held in the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institution / public domain

The cicada killers nests are dug into the ground, identifiable as mounds of excavated dirt (typically sand or other loose soil) with a coin-sized hole in the center. While females of the species are typically non-aggressive, the males can be territorial, dive-bombing pets and people who approach cicada killer nests where the males may be attempting to mate.

"However, the males lack a stinger and are totally incapable of stinging or hurting us," Davis said.

She strongly recommended against killing cicada killer wasps, since not only are they not a threat to humans, but they are also beneficial in controlling the cicada population, which can be destructive to many tree species.

But there are steps people can take to discourage cicada killers from establishing a presence in picnic areas, yards and other areas with human traffic.

"If you don't want them returning to an area, till up the soil, plant some plants, or place pavers/mulch over the area so that the cicada killers will not continue to use it," Davis suggested.

Even though cicada killers are not a danger to humans, their name certainly suggests one family of insects ought to consider them a threat. When a female cicada killer stings its namesake prey, the cicada has much more than being eaten to worry about. Rather than feeding on cicadas, cicada killer wasps use the noisy insects in their reproductive cycle, dragging the paralyzed cicada back to its burrow.

Getting the cicada back to the nest is a complicated process. In the video at the top of this story, the wasp looks to be on the last stages of its journey, dragging the stunned cicada the final inches to its burrow. But their journey is commonly a long one, so cicada killer wasps will sometimes drag the cicada to a high enough position that they can take off—flying or gliding to cover more ground.

Once its brought the paralyzed insect back to its burrow, the wasp lays an egg on the cicada and seals off the underground cell, sometimes repeating the process ten or more times. Two days later, the wasp egg hatches and the larval grub can begin feeding on the still-living cicada.

"By paralyzing, and not outright killing the cicada, she's providing a fresh meal that will last over the months it takes the larva to develop," Davis said.

The process is an annual part of the cicada killer life cycle, but it's so horrific that 19th-century naturalists struggled to reconcile the reproductive cycle of wasps with a belief that nature reflected their god's benevolence. In an essay collected in his book Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History, evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould surveyed 19th-century research into Ichneumonidae (a family of parasitoid wasp that exhibits behavior similar to, but does not include, the cicada killers) and described how naturalists reconciled, or failed to reconcile, the natural world and their religion.

"The free-flying females locate an appropriate host and then convert it to a food factory for their own young," Gould writes, further describing how the ichneumon wasp larva devour the heart and central nervous system last, so their caterpillar nursery is alive throughout its own consumption. "Is it any wonder that inchneumons, not snakes or lions, stood as the paramount challenge to God's benevolence during the heyday of natural theology?"

It was a moral problem that even troubled Charles Darwin, who was one of the first scientists to gently suggest that maybe the natural world doesn't conform to Christian morality.

"I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to be too much misery in the world," Darwin wrote in a letter to a botanist colleague, the year after the publication of 1859's On the Origin of Species. "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."

It may be horrifying to consider being eaten alive in a walled-off chamber beneath the earth, but next time you see a cicada killer, it's best to let them continue with their grim work. And don't worry, the murder hornets haven't swept the nation quite yet.