Cicada killers (Sphecius speciosus) are large wasps that are also sometimes referred to as eastern cicada killers. These wasps get their name because they hunt cicadas and use them to build their own nests. As a result, cicada killers are a natural benefit to any trees which cicada bugs feed on. In the United States, they are also called sand hornets, despite the fact that they are not actually hornets.
Adult eastern cicada killers are rather large (up to 2 inches long) and possess a hairy body marked by red and black colors in the middle part of their bodies, with black and red and also yellow stripes on the rear part of their body (the abdomen). Due to their coloring, cicada killers closely resemble yellow jackets.
Solitary wasps (including the cicada killer) vary significantly in their behavior when compared to social wasps (including hornets and yellowjackets). Female cicada killers primarily use their stinger to paralyze cicadas, rather than using it to protect and defend their nest. Unlike social bees, cicada killers will not try to sting a human being, unless they are handled in a rough manner.
Adult cicada killers generally appear in summer, usually around early July, and they remain until mid-late September or early October. The intimidating females are often seen flying low around lawns in a search for good areas to burrow and build their nests. They generally look for tattered lawns with larger patches of dirt, but can also build a nest in the middle of a flourishing, well-kept lawn. Their nests are easily recognizable as a large circle of dug-up dirt surrounding a thin burrowing hole about the circumference of a quarter. Golf courses are often overwhelmed by cicada killers in the hot summer months.
The female cicada killers are significantly larger than males, and rank right up there as being one of the largest wasps found in the eastern United States. Because of their large size, they are an intimidating presence and usually scare most humans who encounter them. However, they are completely non-aggressive towards humans. They will not sting unless they are surprised in a rough manner, such as being grabbed roughly by a person, stepped on by bare feet, or caught in a person’s clothing. One person who had experienced getting stung by a cicada killer described it as not being much more than a "pinprick". If you encounter a cicada killer, a simple swat is usually enough to send it on its way.
Male cicada killers are frequently seen flying in groups, aggressively challenging each other for position in an effort to breed with the females. You will often see two or even three male cicada killers locked together in mid-air, grappling with each other until one eventually breaks away. Even though the males' aggressive tactics with each other can be extremely intimidating to human onlookers, the males actually pose no threat to people. They will only interact with other insects and have no ability to sting. In general, males are always investigating anything that could potentially be a female ready to mate. These investigations are generally mistaken by humans as attacks, but they are simply being overly curious and will not sting.