Sand Wasps

I was introduced to sand wasps (Bembix sp) by Mike Arduser when he came to visit the Platte River Prairies back in 2012.  As we stood together in a sand prairie, a bee-like creature was zipping around us with incredible speed.  Mike explained that it was a sand wasp, and that it wasn’t interested in us, but rather was looking for flies that might be hanging around us.  Since that day, I’ve paid much more attention to sand wasps and have seen them all over the place in sandy places.

Sand wasp (Bembix americana spinolae) burrowing in sand in a blowout. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Sand wasp (Bembix americana spinolae) burrowing in sand in a blowout. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  This wasp was about 1/2 inch long.

While we were exploring a big sand blowout last week at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, there were lots of sand wasps buzzing around, and we found some of their nest burrows.  I took a little time to sit near a couple nests and photograph the females as they worked to excavate them.  The wind appeared to be blowing just as much sand back into the holes as the bees were digging out…

Here's the same wasp as above as it digs sand out of its burrow.

Here’s the same wasp as above as it digs sand out of its burrow.

The video below shows both the blowing sand and the valiant effort of the wasp to excavate its burrow despite the wind.  If the video doesn’t appear correctly, try clicking on the title of this post to view it through an internet browser.

Mike tells me these sand wasps and their relatives catch and paralyze flies for their young.  They lay eggs in their burrows and provide the flies as food for the larvae.  Females, of course, do all the work to create the burrows, catch the flies and lay the eggs.  The males are just around for mating purposes.  While the wasp larvae eat flies, both the adult males and females feed on nectar and pollen.

Here are a few more images of the sand wasps we saw last week, along with the blowout they were living in.

A big blowout where wind keeps sand moving and open.

A big blowout where wind keeps sand moving and open.

The sand wasp shown earlier takes off and twists its body to zip away.

The sand wasp shown earlier takes off and twists its body to zip away.

This was a little smaller wasp from a different species that was nesting in a different part of the blowout from the first wasp.

This was a smaller wasp from a different Bembix species that was nesting in the same blowout as the first wasp.

...and that wasp was also digging its burrow.

…and that wasp was also digging its burrow.

As often happens with invertebrates, once I’ve been introduced to a creature, I start seeing it everywhere.  Even better, I’ve yet to meet an invertebrate that doesn’t have a fascinating background story.  It’s an awesome world we live in, and we share it with some pretty great neighbors.

Thanks, as always, to Mike Arduser for his help with identification and ecology.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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6 Responses to Sand Wasps

  1. Anton "Tony" Curtis says:

    Thanks for the memories. I remember the sand wasps in our bare sand yard west of Monitor road west of Grand Island where we lived from 1943 until 1954. Our mother was so afraid one of these would sting us. I remember putting a fruit jar over the hole and catching one in it to observe it better. Another thing to add to my list of things that were on the section of land that are no longer present.

  2. Dick Todd says:

    Great info ,I come across these often in my pursuit of tiger beetles and velvet ants.

  3. Great post. Very educational!

  4. Ernest Ochsner says:

    Thanks Chris, something new for me. I’m sure I’ve seen them many times but have never noticed them. Yup we live in an amazing interconnected web of life, too bad so few people ever see it. Thanks for helping with the seeing

  5. Molly Redmond says:

    Great Post, thanks! I note that the Bug Lady(a close relative) has a post in her archives with a lot on life cycles:
    http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/sand-wasps.cfm

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