Lea and I built our house, in a subdivision that used to be a cotton field, seven years ago. It’s not quite shonuff “out in the country,” but it’s definitely not two blocks off a thoroughfare like Lea’s house, where we lived for three years, was.
We didn’t move far—about 15 miles the way the crow flies—but it was far enough, and enough of an environment change, to meet two wasps I’d never encountered before. Both of them are around for a couple of months in the summertime.
The cicada killer looks formidable indeed. It’s a solitary wasp—one of the largest wasps in the world, actually—and its first defense is to make high-speed passes at you, hoping to drive you away.
Something about the area around our deck steps makes it good cicada killer habitat, because every summer around this time I get dive-bombed when I go to feed the dogs in the morning. It scared the hell out of me the first time it happened. (It’s a big bug, and the drone of the wings is correspondingly low and ominous-sounding.)
Fortunately, the cicada killer is a reluctant stinger. You’ll never get stung just being near one. Pretty much, you have to grab one and squeeze.
Guess what cicada killers do? Heh. When she finds a cicada, she stings it to paralyze it, then carries it back to her burrow to feed her babies (an impressive feat, as a cicada is considerably heavier than a cicada killer). The summer we moved in, Lea and I were both fortunate enough to see one carrying a cicada. She’s clumsy and slow, but she gets there.
They’re cool bugs, and now that I know they won’t hurt my family, I like having them around.
The velvet ant, also known as the cow killer, is a different story. It’s a wasp that invades ground bee and wasp nests to lay its eggs near developing larvae, which the velvet ant larvae eat when they hatch. Given its habits, it has evolved a tough exoskeleton. Trying to crush one under your shoe is like trying to smash leather. The females are wingless and look a lot like, well, velvet ants. (Big velvet ants.)
They’re not aggressive, but they run around all the time, and can be anywhere on the lawn. You don’t want to step on one barefoot.
That’s exactly what I did the first summer we lived here. I was on the north side of the house, headed to the backyard to move the sprinkler, when it happened. It was far and away the most impressive insect bite or sting I’ve ever received; perhaps five to six times the pain of a paper wasp or yellowjacket sting. I just barely didn’t cry out. I had to lean on the house for a minute before going in to dress it.
That unpleasant trait aside, they’re pretty ponderous and easy to catch, and they’re interesting to look at for a little while. The colors are usually beautiful. They make a hiss that is quite audible when they’re agitated. Also, you can take blunt-jaw pliers and gently squeeze the abdomen to display the (impressive) stinger. On a big specimen the stinger can be 1/3″ long or so, and I’ve actually seen a drop of venom appear at the tip and run down before. (I caught and released them a couple of times before we had children; now I kill them when I see them.)
I don’t walk around barefoot in the yard in the summer anymore. The boys occasionally do when they’re playing in the little swimming pool, but it’s a small enough area that I’m reasonably comfortable with the odds. I hope they continue to beat them, because the day they don’t will not be a happy one.
Cicada killer photo: Curt Williams. Velvet ant photo: James Castner.