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Indianapolis Museum of Art, and Cicada-killers

The interesting façade of the Indianapolis Museum of Art beckons visitors to enter and explore. This institution is jam-packed with thousands of pieces of art of all kinds, and is a state treasure for the Hoosiers, and a national treasure for the rest of us.

I was invited here to give a talk on the subject of Nature as Art, and did that last Saturday. I greatly appreciate the invite from Chad Franer, who manages the museum's 152 acres of grounds, and the support of Tariq Robinson, who manages public programming for the museum. It was a great chance to dust off images of everything from Tufted Puffins to Fringed Gentians to American Lady butterflies to Wheelbugs, and offer up a pictorial traipse through the beauty of the natural world of the Americas. We had a good crowd, and they seemed to enjoy it.

We had set this gig up so that a walk on the grounds would follow, and I didn't know what to expect regarding the landscape. I was utterly blown away. The museum also functions as a park, and it was obvious that many Indianapolisites come to wander the grounds and bask in nature. Chad has artfully woven scores of native plants into the museum's grounds, which already was thick with lots of big native trees. The upshot is that we found oodles of interesting flora and fauna. They had limited the post-talk walk to 50 people, and we divvied the group up into two and rotated them between the museum staff and myself. We could have easily spent several hours working the grounds and I don't think anyone would have gotten bored. Essentially, the museum's grounds are an extension of the buildings' interiors: living art.

Our foray produced lots of notable flora and fauna, including one of our most charismatic insects. Chad had mentioned that a colony of a huge wasp known as a Cicada-killer was on the grounds, and I of course wanted to see the animals and share them with our group, and we did just that.

A big - and I mean BIG - female Cicada-killer, Sphecius speciosus, glares at your blogger from the entrance of her burrow. There is a sizable colony of the wasps in a fairly high traffic area of the grounds, and people often cut through the dry bank where the wasps have taken up residence. There have been no issues, and Chad respectfully allows them to stay.

Later, Joyce Pontius and I stopped by Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area, which is well known for the numbers of Sandhill Cranes that stop here in late fall and early winter. This area is a wonderful example of a Midwestern sand prairie and also sports some very interesting wetlands, and I wanted to photograph rare plants. Lo and behold, J-P is also loaded with Cicada-killers! This sandy grass parking area was full of them; sometimes 15 or 20 of the giant wasps were in view simultaneously. This was fabulous, as I had long wanted to insert myself into a colony at its peak of activity and try for images.

A male Cicada-killer rockets by, buzzing like a P-52 Mustang. These things are so large they resemble little hummingbirds as they dash madly about. And madly dash they do - a colony is alive with males guarding little patches of turf, and scrambling skyward whenever another male impinges on one's territory. The result is a bunch of huge droning wasps winging about and engaging in lots of airborne tussles - enough to scare the bejeebers out of a person that didn't understand these insects.

A grounded male keeps a constant vigil, ever ready to scramble skyward to deal with interlopers. With patience, I found I could edge pretty close to them for photos. One even used my leg as a perch at one point.

There is absolutely nothing, I mean nothing, to fear from these insects, especially the males. They are six-legged creampuffs; hymenopteran marshmallows. The males do appear daunting, and their large size and aggressive behavior could easily lead a person to fear them. But they pack no punch - males have no stinger. And a slight gesture in their direction usually sends them packing. Females do have a stinger, but they seemed even more passive and I suspect you would literally have to grab one and enfold it in your hand before it would sting.

A female emerges from a burrow. A few times, when I saw one enter her lair, I would lay on the ground within a few feet of the hole and prepare to image the wasp when she returned to the surface. Most of the time, she'd spot me before getting to the tunnel's entrance, and turn around and dash back in. All bark and no bite.

However, if you are a cicada, the wasps are indeed your worst nightmare. Look closely at this photo and you'll see the glazed over, paralyzed eyes of an annual cicada. It was located high in the trees by this female Cicada-killer, jabbed and injected with a paralyzing neurotoxin, and in a feat of incredible brute strength, para-glided to the ground.

Every now and then we would see a female wasp roar aloft and high into the canopy of the surrounding trees. Plenty of Lyric and Linne's cicadas were singing their unmusical droning melodies all about and they were the targets. Occasionally we'd hear the sharp loud distress buzz of a cicada; probably one under attack by a wasp.

It is interesting to actually see a successful Cicada-killer return to earth with a victim. They sort of hover-drop to the ground, like a Sikorski Sy Crane helicopter with engine trouble. The whole package - giant wasp, and even larger cicada - makes for an impressive spectacle. Once on the ground, she rolls the inert cicada onto its back, straddles it and clamps on with powerful mandibles. The poor cicada is then quickly scuttled towards the tombs.

Should you opt to return as a cicada in your next life, do not take up residence anywhere near the proximity of a colony of Cicada-killers. This might be your fate. This wasp is in full trundle, rapidly hustling her victim to her premade burrow. Wasps that were successful hunters did not tarry, and usually had their cicada under the ground in astonishingly short order, which made getting images quite challenging.

The cicada and its wasp attendant disappear into the crypts. Cicada-killer burrows can be a foot or so in length, and the female wasp excavates up to a dozen chambers along its length. Into each is packed one or more cicadas, and the wasp lays an egg on each paralyzed victim. When the wasp grub hatches, it has a fresh supply of meat and digs into the cicada with gusto. It grows rapidly and spends the winter in the ground as a cocoon. Come the following summer, in perfect synchronicity with the emergence of the cicadas, the adult wasps appear and begin the cycle anew.


ben said…
Can you move a burrow? I just found one in my fire pit.
Jim McCormac said…
Hi Ben, no, I wouldn't think so. They're too deep, elaborate, and digging one up would probably destroy it.
ben said…
I guess I'll hope that they are deep enough to survive a fire, then.
Lisa Rainsong said…
What an incredible photo documentary!
Lori Sorth said…
Standing out on my driveway and a Cicada/Cicada Killer "couple" dropped at my feet from the maple above me. The cicada was so loud I jumped! I could literally HEAR the crunching of the killer wasp as it dug into the cicada! Wouldn't have had a clue about this but for your column.
sue schultz said…
After learning more about them I decided I could coexist with them in my driveway. BUT until then flooding, bug spray, filling up the holes DIdnt deter the queen. Her size scared the bejesus out if me!

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