Killers on the Loose! Cicada Killers, That Is

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If you've noticed some enormous wasps buzzing through New York City parks recently, you're not alone. The two-inch long black and yellow Eastern Cicada Killer wasp has been turning heads and quickening steps from Prospect Park to Central Park, as the insect's late summer season draws to a close.

Dr. James Carpenter is the Chair of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum of Natural History. He says despite their fearsome appearance, the cicada killers are unlikely to harm people.

"I suppose they could sting," he said. "But like most solitary wasps, non-social wasps, [they] will only sting if you do something, like pick them up or something."

Instead, the wasps spend their days terrorizing cicadas.They use their vision to locate areas that seem likely to attract cicadas, then fly in and sniff out their prey. Once they spot their cicada, they sting it to paralyze it, then fly with it back to their nests.

Carpenter said he often sees them flying between Central Park and the museum grounds, hoisting their heavy catch.

"It's quite a sight to see them with a cicada longer than themselves," he said. "But since they got six legs they can use a couple of pairs of legs to carry 'em."

Once the wasp drags the cicada into its burrow, it lays an egg on it before burying it alive. A few days later the larva hatches and eats the unfortunate cicada.

Carpenter says a large colony of the wasps on the southeast corner of the museum grounds have been there every summer for more than a century.