The great black wasp is a strikingly large, black wasp with smoky black wings that shine with blue iridescence. It is a type of digger wasp, and most people see it busily eating nectar and pollen from flowers in summertime.
The body is satiny matte black. There is a narrow constriction between thorax and abdomen (it is a “thread-waisted” wasp). The wings are shiny, smoky black, with blue iridescence, usually folded together lengthwise down the back. The legs are long and spiny. The mandibles (mouthparts), usually held together and overlapping, are relatively large and sickle-shaped, with an extra prong in the middle of each curve.
Habitat and Conservation
Great black wasps are most often seen visiting flowers in open areas, July through September.
As with other native wasps, only females have a stinger, and they use it for immobilizing prey to feed their young. They have no group hive to defend, and they do not sting people maliciously — only if they are mistreated. The sting is reportedly painful but harmless, except to individuals with special allergies to the stings. Please don’t kill these wasps out of fear.
A friend to gardeners: a single female great black wasp can capture 16 hoppers a day, helping control grasshoppers, which chew on crops and garden plants.
This wasp also pollinates plants in the milkweed, carrot, and bean families.
With their impressive size and shiny blue-black wings, these wasps are fun to watch. Many famous naturalists have written entertaining, fascinating accounts of this and other digger wasps; those of Howard Ensign Evans (“Wasp Farm”) and J. Henri Fabre are highly recommended.
Great black wasps help control grasshopper and katydid populations.
They pollinate many plants, including the fascinating rattlesnake master of the tallgrass prairie.
Catbirds and sparrows have been documented stealing and eating grasshoppers that had been caught by female great black wasps.
This wasp, in the genus Sphex, is a member of the family Sphecidae (SFEE-ci-dee), the thread-waisted wasps or digger wasps, which are all solitary. Relatives include mud daubers and the very closely related great golden digger wasp (S. ichneumoneus). Solitary wasps do not have the aggressive defensive behaviors of yellowjackets and other wasps that nest in colonies.