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What Kind of Wasp is That?

As an avid gardener and outdoorsman, I’m acquainted with most of the creatures that live around me. That includes insects. Imagine my surprise when I was out in the garden and saw a very large wasp I’d never seen before, flying between one onion blossom and another.

It was time to look in the field guide to insects to learn more about the creature and it turns out that this little gal is quite interesting. It is called a Great Golden Digger Wasp.

Great golden digger wasp description

Although its sheer size, warning coloration, and the fact that it is noticeably a wasp are enough to make many people run away as fast as possible, this is actually one wasp you might want to have around. It isn’t even particularly scarce. It is more of a matter of me not having noticed anything like it before.

This wasp is different than most wasps in a few ways. It is much larger than most wasps here in Montana, for one thing. It is two to three times bigger than the yellow jackets and other paper wasps that we have here, and it is longer than the kind of bumblebees we have.

The coloration is also substantially different. Instead of the typical yellow and black, this wasp has orange to red legs and abdomen, with a black tip at the end of the abdomen. It also has golden coloration around the base of the wings. Actually, in as much as any wasp can be beautiful, this one is.

Great golden digger wasp habits

The habits of this wasp are unusual for wasps, putting it mildly. Unlike most wasps, the adult is quite happy to lap up nectar from flowers rather than eating carrion. In fact, it is quite docile, even more so than a bumblebee, and will usually only sting people if it is handled. Make no mistake; it can sting if it is molested.

The reason that this wasp is good to have around is two-fold. Since it laps up nectar, it can be a good pollinator. More importantly, great golden digger wasps don’t build or protect hives like other kinds of wasps.

Instead, they build tunnels in loose soil. They then sting an insect, very often a member of the grasshopper family. The sting doesn’t kill the grasshopper, it merely paralyzes it. The wasp then carries the grasshopper to one of its tunnels.

The grasshopper is dragged into the tunnel, head first, and the great golden digger wasp lays an egg on the body of the grasshopper. It seals the tunnel, then goes in search for another grasshopper for one of its other tunnels.

When the egg hatches, the larvae begins eating the grasshopper, which is still alive but paralyzed. This results in the death of the grasshopper, by the time the wasp pupates and is ready to emerge as an adult.

Thus, even though it is large and intimidating, it is extremely mild mannered, it functions as a pollinator, and it kills insect pests. It doesn’t harm honeybees and tends to fly away if people or animals get too close. It is a wasp that is useful to have around a yard or garden.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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25 Comments

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    • Thank you! I think it is pretty easy to see why I was a little apprehensive when I first saw it, especially since we’d been removing wasp nests in our shed, located just a dozen feet from where this one was on the onion blossoms. lol I’m certainly glad to have it around. There is apparently a good population, too, because the day after I wrote this, I notice three on the onion blossoms.

  1. I am afraid of a lot of insects, but appreciate them more now that I know much more about ecology. Thank you so much for your post about the wasps. I still don’t want to be stung by them, though!! You are a very smart man with so many interesting topics Rex!!

    • Thank you, Sally. I’m interested in a great many things. No, I certainly wouldn’t want to be stung by this big wasp, but a person pretty much would have to work at making them angry, in order to be stung. I can’t think of a single good reason a person would work at getting a wasp angry enough to sting them. haha

    • To be honest, I’m uncertain if you do or not. It isn’t entirely impossible. I haven’t checked to see what their range is. Still, since they are solitary, even if they aren’t native, it isn’t beyond the scope of reason to figure that some might have found their way there through shipments. Stranger things have happened. lol

      Thank you for the compliment.

    • We do have them here, Gary, but they are a different species than those in Chicago. In Chicago, they would be eastern cicada killer wasps, Sphecius speciosusm. I’m on the western side of the Continental Divide and appropriately, what we have here is the western cicada killer wasps, Sphecius grandis.

      That said, it would take an entomologist to tell the difference. Both are yellow and black, both are digger wasps, both are highly predatory, and both grow to up to two inches in length.

      I’m glad you liked the article!

    • There are actually a lot of different kinds of wasps, but most are yellow and black, looking mostly like yellow jackets (which are one kind of paper wasp). There is also another kind that looks similar to yellow jackets, except that they are tiny; about 1/4 inch long.

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