What are these hellish airborne insects and why won't they die?
July 22, 2014 6:15 AM   Subscribe

I live in the midwest, and for the last three years by mid-summer there is a small horde of winged insects stalking our backdoor. They look like a cross between a bee, a wasp, and the angel of death from the Adventures of Baron von Munchausen. They have red wings, red legs, and a distinct black and white striped abdomen. These suckers are freaking huge, maybe 2" long or longer.

At various times I have unleashed a vast spout of projectile wasp and hornet poison which I am now convinced only makes them stronger. It does nothing. I might as well be using airborne bug steroids. By late summer they have multiplied and must have a hive, maybe similar to a mud dauber? They mostly fly around, land on flowering plants, and I'm positive are plotting something. What are these terrible insects and how do I kill them forever?
posted by joinks to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
joinks, could you provide an actual picture of the insect?
posted by Poppa Bear at 6:18 AM on July 22, 2014

Sounds like maybe a Robber Fly?
posted by sanka at 6:21 AM on July 22, 2014

Response by poster: joinks, could you provide an actual picture of the insect?

This is a tall order. I will try today.

Sounds like maybe a Robber Fly?

Hm, close but not quite. They are fatter, larger, and again the abdomen is vividly striped black/white or black/yellow. How they are not a wasp (or are not affected by wasp poison) is beyond me.
posted by joinks at 6:24 AM on July 22, 2014

Best answer: Maybe a Cicada Killer?
posted by sanka at 6:27 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Paper wasp?
posted by misha at 6:27 AM on July 22, 2014

Could it be some kind of ichneumon wasp?
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:28 AM on July 22, 2014

Response by poster: Maybe a Cicada Killer?

Oh my god we might have a winner. To me, the abdomen is much more ... "stripey" than what these images convey but let me go home and compare. The idea that these things can't sting is mind-blowing. Also, we have cicadas everywhere, especially from mid to late summer. This makes sense.
posted by joinks at 6:30 AM on July 22, 2014

Response by poster: From Wikipedia about Cicada Killers:
Although cicada killers are large, female cicada killer wasps are not aggressive and rarely sting unless they are grasped roughly, stepped upon with bare feet, or caught in clothing, etc. One author who has been stung indicates that, for him, the stings are not much more than a "pinprick". Males aggressively defend their perching areas on nesting sites against rival males but they have no sting. Although they appear to attack anything that moves near their territories, male cicada killers are actually investigating anything that might be a female cicada killer ready to mate. Such close inspection appears to many people to be an attack, but male and female cicada killers do not land on people and attempt to sting. If handled roughly, females will sting, and males will jab with a sharp spine on the tip of their abdomen. Both sexes are well equipped to bite, as they have large jaws; however, they do not appear to grasp human skin and bite. They are generally non-aggressive towards humans and usually fly away when swatted at, instead of attacking.
This describes their behaviour to a T.
posted by joinks at 6:35 AM on July 22, 2014

Very difficult to tell without a photo - but based on the frequency with which these questions pop up here and on other fora, the most common culprits are:

Polistes - paper wasps (big, communal, some reddish). Can sting like a *(£^$&£ if provoked.

Ichneumonid wasps - can be big, some can be red, very elongate bodies, look kind of unnerving. Parasites of other insects and not harmful to people despite their looks.

More unusual possibilities - none of which sting - robber fly as sanka says, also Pigeon Tremex, Brown mantidfly (super awesome) or one of the dobsonflies (although I can't immediately find a North american red one)?

But a photo would definitely help.
posted by cromagnon at 6:41 AM on July 22, 2014

If they are cicada killers, they are really cool! i used to have these at my place in Va, and they were scary until I knew what they were - then they became fascinating. I even got to see a female catch, paralyse, and transport a cicada to their burrow. The cool thing is they have to catch the cicada in a place where they can essentially glide back to the burrow, because they aren't able to fly long distances carrying them! Kind of horrific what they do to the cicada, but as a bug species I thought they were pretty neat.
posted by gorbichov at 10:22 AM on July 22, 2014

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