Southwest Yard & Garden – Cicada Killer Wasps Are Cooler Than They Are Scary

Aug 17, 2020 | Tips & Ideas

In this still image from a wild video taken at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, a cicada killer wasp is starting to haul away a cicada it just poisoned. Photo credit M. Thompson.

Question: What is this HUGE insect in my yard? I hope it’s not a murder hornet!

  • Concerned New Mexicans All Over the State

Answer: I saw versions of this question pop up again and again on Facebook pages for local gardening groups—usually accompanied by a blurry photo of an admittedly scary-looking creature with wings. When I saw one in my own yard and tried to get a photo, I learned why so many of the pictures were blurry.

In case you haven’t already heard, these busybodies are not a dreaded new hornet. They are cicada killer wasps, and they are not new at all. In the parking lot at work a few weeks ago, I was lucky to catch one on film after hearing a loud thud when a poisoned cicada dropped from a cottonwood tree onto a nearby truck hood. As I approached to see what was happening, the wasp flew down and attempted to take the cicada to her nest when I got in the way. Let’s just say there was a little drama, mostly (or entirely) on my part. To see my short, but thrilling video, visit the blog version of my column at

County Cooperative Extension Offices were getting so many inquiries about this surprising critter that Bernalillo County Extension Agriculture Agent John Garlisch and NMSU IPM Small Farm Specialist Dr. Amanda Skidmore teamed up to publish the new NMSU Extension Guide H-175 entitled “Large Wasps in New Mexico or the Asian Giant Hornet” ( I’ve selected a few key passages on cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) from that new publication:

  • Even though the word “killer” is in the name, it only targets the cicada, or “la chicharra,” insect.
  • It does NOT pose a direct threat to humans or pets.
  • These wasps are about 2.5 inches long with a plump body.
  • They do resemble a hornet’s body: black in color with yellow stripes.
  • The wings can be orange to brown in color and have a span of 3 inches.
  • They live underground and prefer sandy soils, and may forage on flowers for sugar and water.
  • They seek out cicadas, which they paralyze and bring back to their nests to lay their eggs inside.
  • They are often seen hovering near the ground or sandy mounds, sometimes carrying prey.
  • Some are territorial and will scout out perceived changes in the environment, including hikers, gardeners, and pets.
  • They will often make a loud buzzing sound, but are not a threat unless harassed.

Without getting too close, I photographed another gigantic insect that startled me in my yard last month. After sharing photos with colleagues who agreed it was likely to be a root borer called the palo verde beetle. I kind of wished I hadn’t let it go—although our NMSU Extension Entomologist Dr. Carol Sutherland warned that they have a powerful bite when provoked. More recently, Dr. Skidmore received an amazing palo verde beetle larva that is sure to be the chubbiest grub you’ve ever seen. Again, I’ll post pics and videos on the blog.

Photo credits M. Thompson.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden – Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at, or at the NM Desert Blooms Facebook page (@NMDesertBlooms)

Please copy your County Extension Agent ( and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!

For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms ( and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page at

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center.