Black wasps, also known as the Katydid Hunter, are Spechidae (thread-waisted wasps) in the order Hymenoptera.
With their sleek black bodies and impressive flying abilities, black wasps are known for their solitary nature. Since they prefer solitude, you will not find a large colony or crowded hives.
Despite their intimidating appearance, these insects are not aggressive toward humans and play an essential role in pollination and pest control in ecosystems.
These black wasps can be found across the United States but prefer the West due to the warmer weather.
Other solitary wasp species may not create significant infestations but might set up their nests around your home.
In 1749, English botanist John Bartram’s description of the Great Black Wasp was recognized by the Royal Society of the City of London as the first record of an insect in the new world. In 1763, Casl Linnaeus labeled it taxonomically.
Over 130 Black Wasp species have been identified in science; these insects also go by “digger wasps” as they dig the ground while nesting.
Let’s explore the intriguing world of black wasps, their physical characteristics, behaviors, and ecological significance, shedding light on these enigmatic creatures.
Appearance of the Great Black Wasp
The Great Black Wasp has a deep black body and wings with an iridescent blue sheen.
These wasps have long segmented antennae, large compound eyes, strong chewing mandibles, tiny pinched waists, and a stinger-tipped abdomen.
Great Black wasp females wield a stinger for paralyzing prey and are more significant than males.
Great black wasps’ bodies are covered in fine hairs that collect pollen during their trips to the garden.
The Great Black digger wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) is a species of digger wasp approximately 20-30 mm long.
Yellow jackets, Mud Daubers, and hornets are just a few of the many wasp species you may come across in the US; all of them are recognizable by their distinctive black and yellow pattern.
However, as its name suggests, the Great black wasp is entirely black.
While it has no markings or strips that identify it, it’s hard to mistake this wasp for any other flying insect.
It may not have an identifiable pattern, but its body shape is undeniable of a wasp: long body, large head, narrow waist, pointed abdomens. Great Black wasp males are smaller and do not sting; females pack a powerful sting and can reach up to 1.4 inches.
Like other digger wasps, female Great Black wasps build underground nests.
These wasps are solitary species with no hive or workers, so the female wasp will dig around a foot beneath the soil and create tunnels using her spiny legs and mouth.
Each cavity is assigned an egg and a paralyzed prey (grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, caterpillars) to go with it. So as soon as the eggs hatch, they will have a meal to feed off as they develop.
These larvae develop into pupae near the end of the fall in their burrows until the summer, when prey and nectar are plenty.
Once these larval wasps turn to mature adults, male adult wasps leave the nest to mate, and mated females start their nests to lay eggs.
Once the eggs hatch, the grub-like larva is fed grasshoppers and katydids by the mother wasp.
Identifying Their Nests
The nest of a great black wasp, scientifically known as Sphex pensylvanicus, is a remarkable construction showcasing these solitary insects’ resourcefulness and ingenuity.
While most wasp nests are papery, straw-colored, and located underneath eaves, Great Black wasps are borrowers.
The nest is typically built in dry, sandy, or loamy soil, often in open areas such as fields, gardens, or sand dunes.
The entrance to the nest is a small hole, typically around half an inch in diameter, which serves as the gateway to an underground burrow. Placing a small pebble or debris often conceals the nest entrance to protect it from predators and the elements.
The nest is a carefully crafted structure of individual cells that are provisioned with paralyzed prey for the wasp’s future offspring.
The wasp starts by digging a vertical tunnel several inches deep, using its strong jaws and legs to excavate the soil. Once the tunnel is deep enough, the wasp digs horizontal tunnels or chambers, each ending in a small cell. These cells are usually lined with a waterproof material, such as saliva or secretion from the wasp’s glands, to prevent moisture from seeping in.
The great black wasp is solitary, meaning that each female wasp constructs and provisions her own nest.
She will typically hunt and capture various insects, such as grasshoppers, crickets, or katydids, which she will paralyze with her venomous sting before dragging them into the nest.
Once the prey is placed in the cell, the female wasp will lay a single egg on it and then seal the cell with a carefully crafted mud or soil plug.
This process is repeated for each cell in the nest, serving as a self-contained nursery for a single wasp larva.
As solitary wasps, they are unlikely to be found in groups. Instead, you’ll probably see them individually buzzing around; if you do, there’s likely a burrow located nearby.
Despite their formidable appearance, great black wasps are generally not aggressive towards humans and rarely sting unless directly threatened, making their nests a fascinating wonder of the natural world to observe and appreciate from a safe distance.
Are Black Wasp Stings Painful?
Fortunately, the Great Black wasps rarely sting.
That isn’t to say that these wasps don’t pack a painful sting; while it is relatively uncommon for humans to get stung by a Great Black wasp, it can hurt if you do.
Great Black wasp stings rarely cause swelling; however, if you are allergic to stinging insects like bees, you are likely equally vulnerable to the sting of this wasp.
Multiple other types of wasps are listed as the most painful insect stings. One of this wasp’s closest relatives, the Tarantula Hawk, is one of the most painful.
Warrior wasps, Asian giant hornets, and paper wasps (all social wasps) are also regularly included in the “most painful sting” list.
Are Great Black Wasps Dangerous?
Although the sting may be painful, this wasp is not considered dangerous.
Except for having an allergy to insect stings, a Great Black wasp sting does not cause long-lasting dangers.
If you experience any allergic reaction (shortness of breath, swollen mouth, sweating, symptoms of anaphylaxis) to a black wasp sting, seek medical attention immediately.
Black Wasp Sting Symptoms and Treatment
Besides itchiness and discomfort, a sting of this wasp may not cause symptoms. However, everyone experiences symptoms differently.
Common symptoms include:
Severe symptoms that may indicate an allergic reaction or infection may include:
- Tickly throat
- Tightness in the chest or throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Nausea or vomiting
Most of the time, stings do not lead to severe generalized reactions. However, if the sting happens in the nose, mouth, or throat area, swelling can cause breathing difficulties.
Treatment for local skin reactions:
- Remove the stinger gently with a blunt-edged object (if you pull it out, it will release more venom)
- Wash gently with warm water and soap
- Apply an ice pack to reduce swelling and pain
- If the sting happens on an extremity, keep it raised to reduce swelling
To reduce itching or pain:
- Apply a wet tea bag for 10-15 minutes
- Use an insect stings product
- Apply calamine lotion or an antihistamine or corticosteroid cream
Keep an eye out for any allergic signs. If you notice symptoms of anaphylaxis, seek medical attention immediately.
What Does the Great Black Wasp Feed On?
Great Black Wasps prey on grasshoppers, katydids, locusts, and cicadas.
They can often be seen flying with these insects in their mouth, likely to be taken back to their nests.
What to Do If You See a Black Wasp?
Under normal circumstances, you don’t have to do anything if you encounter a Great Black wasp.
Unlike hornets and other aggressive species, these wasps generally keep to themselves. Unless you’re a grasshopper, you should not fear them.
Of course, this may not be the case if a black wasp has settled in or near your home.
If you discover that a Great Black wasp has created a burrow in a well-trafficked area, such as near a doorway or a garage, you might have to remove it.
Most of the time, this is done easily with a wasp insecticide spray. Just a few shots from afar should handle an individual wasp.
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Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa's work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.