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 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.