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Aug 20 2011

Anti-Caturday post

I vividly recall the first time I encountered a cicada killer, the amazing huge solitary wasp. I was in eighth grade; I was bumming about in our backyard, not doing much of anything, when I heard this loud clattering buzz overhead, looked up, and saw this giant beast slowly cruising towards our apple tree. It looked like something that ought to be accompanied by Flight of the Valkyries, an armored predatory monster determinedly homing in on its helpless prey. It disappeared into the foliage and then reappeared a moment later carrying a cicada that looked to be twice its size, and it landed on a branch overhead and started chomping. I could hear its jaws cracking open the bug from the ground. It just shredded its meal — and it wasn’t tidy, either. Bits of dead cicada came fluttering down around me. I was frantically looking about the yard for something I could use as a club in case it turned its dead glittering eyes on me.

And ever since that day it has been my dream to grow up and become a Sphecius wasp, a cold, brutal killer capable of rending my enemies into shattered fragments with heedless indifference, inspiring terror in all who behold me. Until now. A new species of wasp has been discovered in the fierce jungles of Indonesia.

Behold the dreaded killer of Sulawesi.

The male measures about two-and-a-half-inches long, Kimsey said. “Its jaws are so large that they wrap up either side of the head when closed. When the jaws are open they are actually longer than the male’s front legs. I don’t know how it can walk.”

Its jaws are longer than its legs. Awesome. I’m in love.

(via Bug Girl)

(Also on Sb)

53 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin Anthoney

    Not impressed. You wouldn’t be able to stick a pin through a cat.

  2. 2
    chigau (違う)

    That thing flies???
    I, for one, would want a club.

  3. 3
    PZ Myers

    Of course you can stick a pin through a cat. A good long hatpin will do nicely.

    A club might not be enough. I recommend a shotgun, just to be sure.

  4. 4
    ChasCPeterson

    I ain’t afraid of no wasp.

    ‘Course, I’m not a cicada.

  5. 5
    Dick the Damned

    The intelligent designer must’ve been having a bad day when he came up with the design for that crittur. I guess he wanted to do some smiting.

  6. 6
    Sili

    There are not enough Acks in the world to cover this.

    –o–

    My father shot a wasp with a rifle once.

  7. 7
    chigau (違う)

    PZ
    hatpin???
    Even you are too young to know what a hatpin is.

  8. 8
    Philip Legge

    Forget the gun, PZ, get the flame thrower or the BFG 9000. That’s if you’re prepared to stand and fight, as opposed to fleeing in terror as I probably would! Yikes.

  9. 9
    nesetalis

    @PZ
    Nuke it from orbit, the only way to be sure.

  10. 10
    Glen Davidson

    Well, anything that makes cicadas shut up should be considered to be a good critter.

    Then again, cats also eat them, so I’m feeling ambiguous about this anti-Caturday post.

    Glen Davidson

  11. 11
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    I’ll take a cicada wasp over a bald-faced hornet any day of the week. I’ve been stung by a bald-faced. Never happened with a cicada wasp (yeah, I might change my mind if the cicada wasp came after me).

  12. 12
    Glen Davidson

    I’d guess that it doesn’t sting, though.

    Who needs that, when you have those jaws?

    Glen Davidson

  13. 13
    'Tis Himself

    And ever since that day it has been my dream to grow up and become a Sphecius wasp, a cold, brutal killer capable of rending my enemies into shattered fragments with heedless indifference, inspiring terror in all who behold me.

    Makes me want to break out in song. ♫♪ To dream the impossible dream. ♪♫

  14. 14
    Comradde PhysioProffe

    Dude, that thing is fucken fucked UPPE!

  15. 15
    Markita Lynda, admirer of roadkill

    I imagine it walks by holding its head up a bit or perhaps by closing its jaws first.

    Bonus: if you squint at the head a bit, the muscles(?) under the skin on either side look like two adoring pupae focussed on a little man — perhaps a conquistador in armour: the dark part is his helmet shading his face, mouth open in an “O,” then the complex area below is his torso and arms, with the armoured legs extending out on the wasp’s antennae.

  16. 16
    Markita Lynda, admirer of roadkill

    Bonus bonus: the man seems to have a see-through abdomen with a fetus inside.

    Clearly, it’s a miracle predicting the development of male pregnancy!

  17. 17
    Markita Lynda, admirer of roadkill

    “Refresh” still doesn’t work!

  18. 18
    frankb

    When I was young I saw a eastern cicada killer climb up a tree with a cicada trying to get airborne. It flew off but in a generally downward path. I wasn’t afraid because that one was obviously occupied.

  19. 19
    cicely

    Size it up, stat it, and this critter would make a noble addition to Monster Manuals everywhere.
    -
    chigau, I believe that I’m reasonably contemporary with our CEO, and I know what a hatpin is! They do about 1 point of damage, can be made of silver, are tricky to apply, and are best used in a system that has provision for a Called Shot.
    -

  20. 20
    chigau (wtf)

    cicely
    re hatpin
    I am a couple of years older than the HeadCephalopod and I am too young to know whatisit a hatpin.
    But when you get into GameSpeak, I must say that we have lumps of it round the back.

  21. 21
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    PZ, we have a gnat who uses titles of your threads for a nym. What is your take on said behavior?

  22. 22
    PZ Myers

    That’s not a gnat, that’s me! It’s the trackback from the Sb copy of this post.

  23. 23
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    That’s not a gnat, that’s me!

    Sorry, didn’t know.

  24. 24
    Warm Little Pond

    Wow, I have been working at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis the last few weeks, gathering data for some bee research I did over the summer. It’s really cool to see PZ posting about the museum and Lynn Kimsey, whom I see often! Very cool.

  25. 25
    ChasCPeterson

    NoR: Threadcop fail.

  26. 26
    Anton Mates

    I’m betting the jaws don’t actually have that much force behind them, especially given how much huger they are in males than females. They’ve probably evolved to look sexy and impressive, and maybe to fend off other males, not to actually rend stuff to bits.

    It works that way for stag beetles. The males have the fancy giant mandibles but the females actually bite harder. (At least, that’s what I found when I poked them.)

  27. 27
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    NoR: Threadcop fail.

    No, but trying to run up a tab on Patricia’s “do not give credit list” gets my attention. *dang, those veggie burgers are expensive*

  28. 28
    Hogeye Grex

    and I know what a hatpin is! They do about 1 point of damage,

    Someone is unfamiliar with the whole point (pun intended) of hatpins. It’s all about secondary infection and/or peritonitis. Sure, there’s not much damage up front, but if ignored they can be a surprisingly effective bit of ruination. One has to take into account the historical wielder and victim, the elderly lady and her mugger. Said mugger was unlikely to seek or receive much in the way of medical care, not being of a class able to pay for it. In its day it was the end of more than a few, and the particularly drawn out and painful way of it made it quite reasonably feared.

    You might want to take that into account in your stats. I suppose you could just treat it as inherently poisoned.

  29. 29
    andyo

    Those macro photos are great. The thing looks mean and cool like a Decepticon.

  30. 30
    feralboy12

    I learned when I was nine years old: they’re all monsters under the microscope.

  31. 31
    Amblebury

    That’s one impressive wee beastie.

  32. 32
    Roxane M.

    Just think–we could turn you loose on Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann!

  33. 33
    antibozo

    If jaws are your thing, check out the dobsonfly.

  34. 34
    Lincoln

    OT: I have to share the google-ads is currently making me want to vomit…There is a Jesus-Fish and a Darwin-Fish making out at the bottom of the page. Talk about picking the wrong site for that particular ad.

  35. 35
    Francisco Bacopa

    When I was a kid I had the good fortune to have a nest of cicada killers in the back yard. We had a weird air conditioner compressor that blew outward rather than upward. No grass would grow there, but the cicada killers loved making their nests there. I learned to walk among them without fear.

    There seems to be a lot of variation in size of cicada killers. And more than one will use the same burrow. Are they semisocial? I used to think back then that the smaller ones were males.

    Like the above commenter I have seen them do the thing where they climb the tree and fly a few ten feet until they hit the ground, making the trip to the nest in multiple hops. It seemed to be mostly the smaller wasps that did this. The larger females were able to fly with a full-size annual cicada. These are the big brown cicadas, not the little green and black ones.

    Hmm, just checked Wikipedia, they are not semisocial, they just all nested together because it was an awesome patch of ground. Only females hunt cicadas. Males mostly eat tree sap and nectar. So the struggling fliers may just have been smaller females with larger prey. The wasps rarely rip their prey with their mandibles, they are designed more for control and capture, though they are quite strong and can deliver a serious bite. The female paralyzes her prey in conventional wasp fashion and lays eggs in the cicada.

    The venom is harmless to humans, though they sometimes do a bite and sting combo that is quite painful.

    Sphecius speciosus, the cicada kiler, is my favorite insect. Solenopsis invicta is my least favorite insect. The Banana Spider is my favorite spider.

    That would be an epic battle, banana spider vs cicada killer. Have you ever seen how huge a banana spider’s web is?

  36. 36
    thebigJ_A

    I thought cicada killers only ate cicadas as larvae. The female stings them, carries it to the nest, and lays an egg on them. The cute little baby then devours it alive.

    Maybe I’m wrong, it’s just what I thought.

  37. 37
    Alexander the Good Enough

    Late to the party as always.

    There’s plenty of info about cicada killers to found with a little Googling; I’ve had to do it because we’re blessed with a large number of them at work and I’ve had to assure folks that, appearances to the contrary, they are quite harmless.

    There is substantial dimorphism between the sexes, the males being about half the size of the females. The males, like all bees and wasps, are unable to sting (the sting is a modified ovipositor) and don’t do much more than fly around the nesting area all day and act aggressive and fight with each other while waiting their chance with a female. Mildly and harmlessly entertaining, I guess.

    The females, of course, do all the work. She’ll dig the burrow, which can be well over a meter long, and stock it with cicadas which she’ll find, sting and paralyze, and haul, laboriously, back to the burrow. Despite her size, even she usually can’t fly straight back to the burrow with a huge cicada, so she’ll launch herself and her prey and fly as far as she can, all the while losing altitude. When she lands, she’ll then haul herself and her cicada up the nearest vertical surface and launch herself again. If you happen to be standing there and are patient, she’ll be quite happy to climb up you or even accept a gentle elevator ride in your hand. Good for a laugh.

    Interestingly, the females know if they are laying a male or female egg. If it’s a female, they’ll stock the nesting chamber with two cicadas. A male gets just one, and a male larva will eat only one cicada even if two are made available.

    The cicada killer is a benign, even beneficial, species that can bite but almost never stings. If it’s a sting you want, try the “cow killer” or velvet ant, which is in fact a flightless wasp with a sting that packs a real wallop (hence “cow killer”). They are actually a parasite of the cicada killers! The velvet ant larva eats the cicada killer pupa. So one should still be careful where one steps around a cicada killer nesting area.

  38. 38
    Mobius

    I hate wasps.

    And that is one ***freaky*** looking wasp. I swear it looks like a special effect for some demented sci-fi movie.

  39. 39
    Mobius

    BTW…here is one lil beasty that gives me the willies…the Japanese giant hornet.

    http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/arts/2007/04/26/budha460.jpg

    I’ve never seen one other than in pictures, but that thing is enough to give me nightmares. And it is social, so they can come in multiple sets. I understand its sting is particularly nasty.

    Alexander…

    I live in Oklahoma and we have both cicada killers and cow killers here. I wasn’t aware of the velvet ants (cow killers) feasting on cicada killers. Thanx for the info.

  40. 40
    Roger

    “I could hear its jaws cracking open the bug from the ground. It just shredded its meal — and it wasn’t tidy, either. Bits of dead cicada came fluttering down around me. ”
    Either what you saw was not a cicada killer, or your memory has improved the event. Adult cicada killers are vegetarian.

  41. 41
    Francisco Bacopa

    Alexander at #38

    Used to be velvet ants here when I was a kid. Used to be so many june bugs that I taught the family dogs to hunt their grubs. Taught a cat too, she hunted them by putting her ear to the ground. Used to be fireflies, though I barely remember them. The fire ants have killed them all. No fireflies, few junebugs, no velvet ants or cow killers. Ants, lots of ants. Ants everywhere. Texas is developing a serious wine industry to compete with California. This could not be done without fire ants. Been on a few wine tours in the last few years. They love the fire ants. They scour the landscape clean of all competition.

    Cicada killers are still going strong. The local cicada killer is also native to the native range of the fire ant in Brazil. Do they make an ant repellent?

    We really must study insects more closely to understand their secrets. How do wasps repel fire ants? I do feral cat colony management. Many kittens have botflies. How does the botfly larva keep infection at bay? If the hole in the kitten’s neck became infected, the kitten’s immune response would suffocate the botfly. Do botfly larvae secrete antibiotics? We have much to learn from our six-legged companions.

  42. 42
    johndavis

    I still remember the first time I saw a male Dobsonfly, they’re quite scary looking. It was only later I learned their mandibles are really only for mating. The females and larvae are what you have to watch out for. I still find the male Dobsonfly more visually intimidating than any wasp.

  43. 43
    M

    I’m terrified of wasps, so I’m glad that abomination is in some remote jungle in indonesia.

    But still, much as I wouldn’t want to trade my tabbycat for a mollusk, echinoderm, or in this case an arthropod, I do like the anti-caturday posts. You see some interesting stuff. I mean with mating slugs (which I had seen before) I guess I find it more gross then balletic, but it’s an INTERESTING kind of gross. Shows how alien their anatomy is compared to use vertebrates, and that’s cool.

    As for this wasp, it’s a rather nasty looking thing, isn’t it? Although the japanese giant hornet is still scarier.

  44. 44
    ChasCPeterson

    Adult cicada killers are vegetarian.

    there’s that famous Pharyngula fact-checking again

  45. 45
    Markita Lynda, thread killer

    The cicada larvae live underground, sucking on root sap, so the wasps go after the adults.

    Very neat about the cat and dog hunting grubs. In my urban neighbourhood, skunks dig them up; but my cats used to dig up earthworms–don’t know how they found them.

    OK, how does a wasp know whether it’s laying a male or a female? Is it possibly a matter of egg size?

  46. 46
    Markita Lynda, thread killer

    PZ, it’s possible that bits of bark were showering down as the cicada-killer was making her way up the tree to launch towards her burrow.

    Chas, we’re talking about a childhood memory here… visit the scenes of your childhood, especially somewhere you went only once, and you might find it quite different even if it hasn’t changed in real life.

  47. 47
    Mak, acolyte to Farore

    Ohhh that’s what that was! I saw a cicada killer on our sidewalk a few weeks back and had a minor freak out over the size of it and murdered the poor thing. Florida’s kind of crowded with exotic species and I figured that was the case here, too, ’cause I’d never seen one before. Plus I was afraid the chihuahua would get it.

    Then my mom’s boyfriend saw it and had a freakout himself because he swore up and down that it wasn’t native. Looks like he was wrong. I’ll be glad to tell him, though I doubt he’ll believe me.

  48. 48
    ChasCPeterson

    oh, I know.
    Just ribbing the poopyhead.

  49. 49
    Roger

    It’s a pity Darwin didn’t know about cow-killers and their relationship with cicada-killers:
    “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars,”
    Three levels of divine benevolence here: cow-killer larvae eating cicada-killer larvae eating cicadas…
    Are there any creatures which eat cow-killer larvae like this? What is the most-extended sequence of “Big fleas have little fleas…”?

  50. 50
    Dr Yak

    I am actually living in Sulawesi at the moment – up in the Lembeh Strait – hunting Mimic octopus, etc. I will have to head on down south to have a look for these critters. Lots of amazing stuff out here, especially underwater.

  51. 51
    ThatsOdd

    Interesting – I was sitting outside chatting with a buddy yesterday evening when this bigass bee-type thingy flew by me. I jumped up and we watched this thing fly around, trying to figure out what it was. We guessed “yellowjacket” due to the stripes.

    Nope – courtesy of PZ I now know it was a cicada killer.

    Who needs After School Specials when we have Pharyngula?

  52. 52
    Bill C.

    5Those mandibles are long, but a little flimsy … The big Australian flower-wasps have mandibles like a pair of roofing pliers.

  53. 53
    Ian

    “I’m terrified of wasps, so I’m glad that abomination is in some remote jungle in indonesia.“

    Where do you live? Because if it’s anywhere in the southwestern US, you may not have those near you, but you’re probably living near some of these:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarantula_hawk

    It’s a type of wasp. They’re called Tarantula Hawks because they kill tarantulas. Well, their larvae kill tarantulas. They just paralyze and lay their eggs on tarantulas. And they live across about half of the US. Hooray!

    Their sting is supposed to be pretty nasty, but unfortunately for the purposes of scaring you, they are not at all aggressive toward humans.

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