Jenschke: It’s big, but it’s not a ‘murder hornet’

Staff Writer
Stephenville Empire-Tribune
Lonnie Jenschke

It’s a bird, it’s a plane … it’s a cicada wasp.

June is the normal month for the cicada killer wasp, a common large wasp in Texas, to start showing up and this prompted posts on Facebook and in news feeds mistakenly reporting cicada killer wasps as sightings of the Asian giant hornet.

How to tell the difference

There are a number of Texas native species of wasp, hornet, yellow jacket and bees, but what really separates Asian giant hornet and a few of our native species is their size. The ones most likely to be confused with Asian giant hornet are three species of cicada killers and the pigeon horntail.

The Asian giant hornet is the world’s largest known hornet measuring 1 1/2 to 2 inches in length. It has a head as wide as its shoulders, where the wings and legs are located, or wider, and it is a bright orange or yellow. The thorax, or shoulder portion where the wings and legs are connected, is a dark brown, as are the antenna. It has a much smaller or pinched waist and then smooth looking brown and orange stripes cover the abdomen.

The cicada killers, of which there are three different species here in Texas, are also quite large, measuring 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length. But they will all typically have a head that is narrower than the thorax. The head and the thorax are typically the same color, a darker orange or brown color. It does also have a pinched waist. But the stripes on the abdomen will be jagged and sometimes look like mountains.

The eastern cicada killer tends to be black and yellow. The western cicada killer is closer in color to the Asian giant hornet, being reddish brown and yellow. But there is no contrasting color between the head and thorax and the stripes are jagged on the western cicada killer.

Harmful or just alarming

The Asian giant hornet preys on bees and can decimate local honey bee populations, essential for most fruit and vegetable crop production. The Asian giant hornets also are fiercely protective of their nests and will deploy painful stings that can cause fatal allergic reactions in people already sensitive to bee stings.

The cicada killer and wood wasps, however, are solitary and thus do not aggressively protect their nesting sites by attacking in large numbers. Cicada killers, however, may cause alarm due to the males’ territorial behavior, dive-bombing or buzzing people and animals that walk into their territory.

Although cicada killers are solitary, you can often find numerous individuals in areas with sandy soils where females dig nests in the ground. These nests appear as dime- to quarter-sized holes. As females come and go, provisioning their nest with cicadas they paralyze with a sting and carry back to their nests.

Lonnie Jenschke is the Erath County Extension Agent-Ag/NR for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. He can be reached at l-jenschke@tamu.edu