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Great Golden Digger Wasps Digging Nests & Provisioning Them with Food

8-11-15 great golden d.w.2 159The Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus, is a solitary, predatory wasp whose hunting and nesting techniques are programmed and never vary. Having overwintered underground in a nest dug by its mother, the adult wasp emerges, often in August, and begins preparations for the next generation. She digs several nests in packed, sandy soil, using her mandibles to cut the earth. Emerging backwards from the ground with a lump of soil between her forelegs and head, she flips the soil with her forelegs beneath her body, scattering it to the sides with her hind legs. In this manner she excavates several cells off a central 4-6-inch deep tunnel.

The wasp seeks out prey — often a grasshopper, cicada or cricket – and then stings and paralyzes it. If the prey is small, she flies it directly to the nest. If prey is too large to transport aerially, the wasp will walk with it across the ground, dragging it by its antennae (see photo). She then drops the prey several inches from the nest hole. After crawling down into the nest for a brief inspection, she pulls the prey down into one of the cells while walking backwards. She then leaves to find another insect. When a cell contains paralyzed prey, the wasp lays an egg on the insect. The egg hatches within two or three days and the wasp larva begins eating the insect. Because the prey is not dead, decomposition is delayed, and the wasp larva’s food is relatively fresh. The developing wasps overwinter in the nest and emerge the following summer to begin the process all over again.

If you live near a sunny area of compacted clay and sand that has flower nectar for adults to feed on and crickets, grasshoppers and katydids for their larvae, you may well have a chance to observe this unique ritual. (Thanks to Marian Cawley for photo op.)

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10 responses

  1. lburdick

    This blog is beginning to give me nightmares.

    Sent from my iPad


    August 11, 2014 at 11:50 am

  2. Peggy Timmerman

    I’m curious what the life cycle is for the male wasp and how he fits into the picture.

    August 11, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    • Me, too, Peggy. I just said to someone today that I hadn’t found any information yet on males, but if I do, I’ll let you know!

      August 11, 2014 at 10:26 pm

  3. Myles

    We’ve been enjoying the comings and goings of another predatory wasp: The Cicada Killer. Thank you for your timely post! We love your books!

    August 11, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    • Where do you live? I’d love to see a Cicada Killer (a close cousin of the G.G.D.Wasp, I believe)!

      August 11, 2014 at 10:25 pm

  4. Annette

    Folks are surveying Cerceris Wasp colonies around the state in order to monitor encroachment of the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive which will attack our ash tree population. Thanks for sharing this entry about a different wasp with some similar traits. Cerceris wasp females catch bupestrid beetles, also paralyze them, and ferry them to their nest holes in hard-packed, sandy dirt. Ball fields are a prime location. The EAB are in the bupestrid family, so the goal of the surveyors is to find at least 50 paralyzed buprestids and if none are EAB, then we can assume they are not here yet. No nests are dug up in this effort. Either “drops” are found on the ground (caught prey which never made it to the nest hole) or the wasps are caught with a net and released, having dropped their paralyzed prey in the net.

    August 12, 2014 at 1:30 pm

  5. Fascinating post – as for the victim – what an awful way to go! Sounds like a horror movie.

    August 13, 2014 at 2:11 am

  6. Kathy McDonald

    We have had these wasps in the sand around the bricks on our patio for several years. I was worried about them when we had to power wash the bricks but she is out there again this morning with a still moving green grasshopper. I love that they are so tolerant and don’t mind us being there, like the solitary bees.

    August 16, 2014 at 5:26 pm

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