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Great Golden Digger Wasp

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

September 19, 2022

After the rush of the spring nesting season, things tend to slow down a bit in the natural world. Sure, some birds such as Cedar Waxwings and American Goldfinch are just getting started in their nesting efforts for the year, but most other species are done with baby birds in the nest and are busy chasing their offspring around to feed them.

But there is plenty of super cool things to see in nature. For instance, I was working in my yard when I heard what sounded like a huge insect flying. The buzzing sound was remarkably loud and when I looked over to see what it was, I saw immediately it was a huge wasp carrying another insect that was at least its own size. Carrying a heavy load would explain why the buzzing sound was so loud. The effort it takes for an insect to carry twice its own weight puts a lot of demand on the wings, which intern produces a louder sound. Much like a truck engine that is moving a heavy load is much louder.

From its bright orange, red and black markings I could clearly see this was a Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus). These wasps are large and intimidating looking. They are over an inch long and have bright red and orange markings on their body and legs. They have large dark wings which they are constantly flicking and twitching. In addition to looking nasty they also do some nasty things.

They have very fine golden “hairs”, which are called setae, on their head which lends to part of their name “Golden”. Like many other wasps, the Great Golden Digger Wasp belongs to the “thin waisted” wasp family (Family Sphecidae). They have a noticeable narrow or thin area between their thorax and abdomen approximately where their waist would be located.

These amazing wasps are solitary ground nesters. They look for loose sand or gravel where they will dig a short tunnel several inches into the ground. From this main shaft they dig smaller side chambers where they will lay eggs, and this is where things get nasty.

When the female lays an egg in the underground chamber, she goes out and finds a grasshopper or katydid and attacks it. The wasp stings the prey and delivers just enough venom to paralyze but not kill the insect. She then grabs the paralyzed victim and flies back to the egg chambers.

When the wasp lands at the nest chamber she leaves the paralyzed victim at the entrance hole positioned so the head is facing into the chamber. She goes inside to lay and egg in one of the side chambers. Then she quickly crawls out and grabs the victim and drags it inside. She will seal the insect victim in the chamber with the egg.  

Yep, you guessed it, when the wasp egg hatches it will feed on the paralyzed insect which is still alive. The adult wasp is harvesting live victims and sealing them inside the egg chamber, so the young larva has a fresh meal when it hatches. In my mind this is science fiction at its finest but of course this is real life.

Insects preying upon other insects is not unusual, but this takes it to another level. Just the thought of still being alive but paralyzed and unable to do anything and then being stuffed into an underground chamber and then eaten alive is almost too much.

I spent a couple hours watching about five or six Great Golden Digger Wasp flying out and returning with prey after prey. They would fly around and around the nest chamber before landing and starting the process all over again of dragging the victim into the chamber then heading out again.

The intricacy of nature is what has kept me interested and fascinated for my entire life. It keeps the fire of wonder and seeking understanding nature burning deep inside me. I can find utter contentment in just watching and learning about all the aspects of nature. Even if the aspect is sometimes gruesome and frightening. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and Wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images and video of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at naturesmart.com. 

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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