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September 29, 2023

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A swarm of wasps that’s not as scary as it seems

Throughout the past few weeks, the University’s Maintenance Department received complaints from students and faculty of an “extremely large bee” problem. The campus doesn’t have a bee problem at all – the insects being reported are actually wasps.

The wasps, called cicada killers, are among the largest wasps found in the United States. Sizing up to a Sharpie marker cap, the wasps’ bodies are about two inches long for females and about one and a half for males.

Their bodies resemble that of a yellowjacket. Their waxy brownish wings are attached to a torso that is host to bright yellow stripes that emblaze a black and red body.

The wasps are prominent in areas containing sandy soil and sunshine.

The females burrow in the sand and spend their short lives – only 60 to 75 days – mating and hunting and paralyzing cicadas, an insect, to provide food for their larvae. The male’s sole purpose in life is to mate with the female. The wasp larvae spend fall, winter and spring in the burrows feeding on the paralyzed cicadas, which can live paralyzed for over a year, and then emerge the following summer.

The majority of the wasps flying on campus are male wasps. The males outnumber the female wasps at about six to one.

Daniel Povuk, biological science instructor and entomologist at the University, reports this as a good thing. The female wasps are the only ones that can sting, but in general the cicada killer wasps, as a whole, are not aggressive and are unlikely to sting anyone.

“These wasps are very unlikely to sting unless you try to pick one up or accidentally step on one,” Povuk said. “These wasps won’t sting you for no reason like many other wasps and bees, you can actually walk through a whole bunch of them and not get stung.”

But try telling Kara Butler, a junior biology major at the University, to walk through a group of wasps without even a speck of fear.

“The wasps are everywhere outside Overman Hall and the Math and Science building,” Butler said.

“I’ve heard they aren’t harmful but I still wince every time I have to walk around a group of them.”

In the chance that Butler, or anyone else, would get stung, Barb Hoffman, senior director of the Student Health Center, offers some advice.

“You should always remove the stinger if it is still in place and if the sting is localized you can apply a cold pack and take a Benadryl to alleviate the swelling and itching,” Hoffman said. “If you’re allergic to bees or wasps or start to break out in hives and severe swelling you should call your doctor or go to the hospital for assistance immediately.”

But the odds of not getting stung are looking to be in the student and faculty’s favor. With zero reports of bee and wasp stings the health center didn’t view the wasps as much of a problem.

When asked about removal of the wasps, Povuk didn’t see the need for such an extreme measure.

“The wasps aren’t really harmful, their sheer size may be frightening but other than that, they are actually helpful because they paralyze and take away the cicadas [that] can actually be harmful to trees,” Povuk said.

“Removing them wouldn’t do much good anyway. You can kill the adult wasps but the larvae that live in the burrows will just emerge again the following year.”

The University’s Pest Removal Department was not available for comment.

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