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Harmless ‘Killer Wasps’

One day in August, one of our firm’s employees announced she unexpectedly needed to work from home.

Such requests aren’t unusual. We try to be flexible enough to accommodate sick children home from school, broken air conditioning units or unexpected weather conditions. But Administrative Manager Melissa DiNapoli introduced a new emergency with her message to our staff.

“I need to be here for a service visit from our pest control company for a reoccurring issue we are having with Cicada killer bees,” she wrote. “If you’ve never seen one of these bees you should Google it, they look like monsters.”

I did, in fact, Google it. But I also messaged Melissa, eager to get the rest of the story. The creatures, which I later learned are properly called cicada killer wasps, are indeed startlingly big, though their resemblance to monsters is probably subjective. Melissa knew that these wasps are generally harmless to humans. Unlike some of their more aggressive cousins, cicada killer wasps typically don’t sting unless stepped on or squeezed – if swatted at, they mostly just fly away. Even in the rare instances they do sting, the pain is unpleasant but reportedly less than that of a honeybee or a yellow jacket.

However, male cicada killer wasps commonly swarm in groups, challenging one another for dominance and investigating anything that moves near them, on the off chance it might be a female wasp. Because the wasps had built their nest about one foot away from the family swimming pool, these clumps of large male wasps were terrorizing the DiNapoli children. So that was that; the wasps had to go.

As I dove into the world of cicada killer wasps online, I also discovered the world of cicadas and people obsessed with tracking them. Because of cicadas’ periodic life cycles, some people spend a great deal of time tracking when and where the next brood will emerge. Some cicadas only appear on a 13- or 17-year cycle, although since different broods are on different timetables, most years will see a cicada emergence somewhere in North America. Sites like magicicada.org and cicadamania.com enthusiastically track each year’s scheduled appearances.

Depending on where you live, the mainstream media might get into the act too. In 2013, a 17-year group called Magicicada Brood II emerged in the Northeast United States. WNYC, New York City’s public radio affiliate, encouraged listeners to help scientists track the bugs using homemade sensors. And in 2016, Slate answered the really pressing cicada question: “Can I eat them?” (This question was possibly submitted by a bunch of cicada killer wasps in a trench coat.)

For most people, at least those without an insect phobia, many backyard bugs fall somewhere on the scale between breathless excitement and calling pest control. While I was growing up, I was taught to always respect praying mantises. These creatures might look scary up close, but they are great for keeping other, more irritating bugs away. We have lost a lot of bats in my neck of the woods in recent years, and I have noticed a lot more mosquito bites as a result. Anything that eats mosquitoes is OK with me. That means dragonflies are also welcome at my place anytime.

As for cicadas, though, I’m mostly indifferent. I just don’t see them much where I live. This may be part of why I’ve never, to my knowledge, seen a cicada killer wasp in person. It may also be the fact that I tend to overwater my lawn, since these wasps prefer to live in dry soil.

Love them or fear them, we are about to say goodbye to cicadas and cicada killer wasps for the season. With luck, next year’s batch of wasps will have the good sense to build their nests far away from easily frightened children, so both the children and the wasps can enjoy their summers in peace.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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