return of the big, scary black wasp

I haven’t seen the Great Black Wasp (Sphex pennsylvanicus), a type of digger wasp, for eight years, when I first found this fearsome looking insect in my backyard feasting on the nectar of swamp milkweed.  But this week I found several of them pollinating the flowers of a wildflower I have never seen before — Spotted Bee Balm.

A 1.5-inch long, fearsome-looking all black wasp with long legs and blue-black wings.  

The wasp inserted its head all the way into the flower and came out again with a nice dusting of pollen to take to the next flower.

The Great Black Wasp is also known as the Cicada Killer, for its habit of stinging and paralyzing orthopteran insects (grasshoppers, cicadas, etc.) to provide food for their offspring.  The prey are paralyzed after being stung in the head and abdomen and are then deposited in an underground nest. A single egg is laid on the underside of just one of the two to six prey items placed in each nest chamber as the larva’s food source during its development.

spotted bee balm

Spotted Bee Balm is a relative of the more common pink or red Bee Balm.  Flowers are arranged in whorls along the stem of the plant.  Multiple stems bearing flowers present a rich source of nectar and pollen for pollinators, but the stems die back in the winter, and the plants regrow from the roots only 1-2 years before dying out.

White bracts separate clumps of flowers on the stem and the flowers seem to open sequentially rather than all at once, so pollinators would be encouraged to revisit particular stems and whorls of flowers.   

This fragrant flowering plant, found mostly in the eastern half of the U.S.,  is especially attractive to large-bodied bumblebees, carpenter bees, and digger bees, as well as a variety of other nectar- or pollen-feeding insects.  It flourishes in dry, sandy areas, disturbed areas along roadsides and railroads, old fields, and prairies.  I don’t know why I have never seen it before this, but I would certainly like to add it to my prairie garden.

Wildflowers at the Grass Lake slough include a wide variety of perennials like Spotted Bee Balm.

13 thoughts on “return of the big, scary black wasp

  1. Hi Sue – Approximately what geographical area are you in? I need to know if I’d have any luck with milkweed in my area: Aurora, Colorado Adams County Thanks!


  2. I like that they get rid of the grasshoppers that eat my garden edibles. I see them now and again and think they are quite beautiful. Everything has a place and I’m so enjoying watching the garden more now and seeing how all things work together. I love your blogs!!!

    • And I like the fact that they pretty much ignore me, unlike the yellow jackets that come after me when I get too close! Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you like the blog.

  3. I just planted some of that interesting Spotted bee balm, after seeing it on a spot at Belwyn. I had no idea it was so short lived, though. As always, Sue, great info!

  4. Lovely flowers – I’ve never seen them – and intimidating but fascinating wasps- I enjoyed all the info!

    • Good to hear from you, Terry. I’ve never seen these plants before either, but apparently they have been a part of the prairie flora for some time.

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