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123 Dog-day Homicide August on our southern grasslands is, on average, a time of heavy, raw heat. Rain, if it comes at all, often falls in tantalizing fits, as if practicing for the wetter days to follow in September. The heat is exhausting, and not much stirs except a few birds prowling for insects, bugs being the only life form that appears to appreciate the sweltering weight of late summer. The eighth month, named for the Roman emperor Augustus, is a peak time for both highly visual and vocal insects. Sullen days echo the ratcheting reproductive pleas of cicadas clinging to the twigs of oak trees, their strident songs broadcasting their persistent urge to mate and then die and in doing so renew the life cycle of the species. Cruising dragonflies defend territories over pools stained olive green with algae, and daintier damselflies, many the color of the finest Persian turquoise, flutter in the shadows of streamside shrubbery. At the same time,it’s the season to witness the predatory behavior of wasps. These winged assassins feed on flower pollen and nectar, taking on the nourishment needed to hunt down and sting prey ranging from spiders the size of a child’s hand to dog-day cicadas stridulating in the oaks like a concert of jackhammers busily busting up concrete. 124 Dog-day Homicide After locating prey, several species of hunting wasps sting their victim in such a way that leaves the insect paralyzed but not dead. The ability to insert a stinger and inject a paralysis-producing agent seems a rather remarkable accomplishment for something as visually unremarkable as a wasp. The wasp’s surgical and chemical precision in immobilizingpreyresultsinamealsoontobestoredwithwaspeggsin a tiny tunnel dug by the female. It’s a macabre solution to the problem of providing fresh food for the larvae when they hatch. They’ll enter the world with sustenance waiting, nourishment that can’t escape and will remain alive until the brood feeds deeply enough to kill it. Evolution has provided the adult female with a way to get around the need for refrigeration at the peak of summer, and entomologists are left with a chilling life history scenario befitting a B-rated horror movie. That’s why, on a hot and humid afternoon along a prairie stream, temperature 98 degrees Fahrenheit, cicada killer wasps are digging burrows into a narrow strip of bare dirt bordering a long algae-stained pool in Hominy Creek. Cicada killers are big wasps, some nearly two inches long, and this is their time of the year and their kind of weather. They’re stimulated to hunt by the buzzing din of cicadas blasting from streamside trees and shrubs. When the burrows are finished, the female wasps go on patrol. And the droning cicadas, as big as a man’s thumb from tip to first joint, sing even more loudly as the temperature rises, lustily unaware of the fate that might soon befall them. The patch of bare dirt beside the stream proves to be prime for digging birth chambers. Several wasps have settled here to burrow furiously as they prepare the nurseries that will help ensure a cicada killer future. A saltwater spill from a nearby oil field injection well erased all vegetation several years before, leaving an ugly scar. But it’s a maternity ward in the making for cicada killers. These stout wasps with their rusty red heads and thoraxes, clear reddish wings, and heavy black and yellow striped abdomens are all business as the August afternoon swelters. Their own reproductive urges are equal to, yet much quieter than, those of the cicadas. The dog-day droning sounds both monotonous and at times earsplitting, the chorus cranking up to its highest volume as the late summer sun climbs heavenward. It hasn’t rained in weeks, and dry dirt kicked out of the hole by an industrious female wasp preparing her nursery chamber shoots back several feet.For a moment two females attempt to dig in the same hole, until one asserts her dominance and her rival retreats. When finished, 125 Dog-day Homicide the birth chamber will angle down six to ten inches deep by half an inch wide. Within minutes, the female cicada killer has finished digging her hole and gone airborne, focusing her search on what will prove to be some cicada’s death song. Then comes the sting with the venom that paralyzes but doesn’t kill. The next step is the arduous process...


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