Cicada Killers and the Bigger Picture

Not far from where I live is a place that seems as if a chunk of Nantucket or the New Jersey Pine Barrens was dropped in the middle of western Massachusetts. In contrast to the surrounding landscape’s rocky soil, supporting forest with a mixture of oak, hickory, maple, ash, hemlock, and other trees, the Montague Sand Plains are an expanse of dry, sandy habitat with an abundance of pitch pine and scrub oak.  The habitat is extensive enough that it supports populations of a variety of plants and animals that are considered rare and of conservation concern in Massachusetts.

The reason for this big sand pile is that about 15,000 years ago, when the last glacier was receding, glacial sediments plugged up the Connecticut River in what is now central Connecticut, forming a dam that turned the river into a massive lake extending to northern Vermont.  The Sand Plains are one of the deltas that formed where melt water streams carrying glacial sediment emptied into the lake.

To someone ignorant of the natural world (e.g., most of the people in charge of making major decisions that affect it), the Montague Plains might appear to be a scrappy wasteland not worth protecting.  In the early 1970s, the State thought it would be a perfect spot for a landfill to dump all of Boston’s trash.  Shortly after the people of Montague managed to fight off this assault, Northeast Utilities decided to put a nuclear power plant there.  The only legal means for preventing this was to speak up at a hearing held by the Atomic Energy Commission, whose decision would preempt all state and local laws.  A local organic farmer named Sam Lovejoy recognized that these hearings were a farce, and 41 years ago today [well, yesterday, since I finished this after midnight], he knocked over a 500-foot weather tower that Northeast Utilities had erected to test wind direction.  His intent was to spark a public debate on the effects of nuclear reactors.  The details are given in the documentary Lovejoy’s Nuclear War, which I just had the opportunity to see today. But the upshot is, the nuclear plant was never built, and the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area remains a special place.

So last summer, when Lang Elliott came for a visit and was looking for some interesting bugs to film, I brought him to the Montague Plains.  In addition to things like tiger beetles, wolf spiders, and velvet ants, sandy places like this are home to all kinds of digger wasps, each of which stocks its burrow with a particular paralyzed prey item to feed its offspring. Some species specialize in spiders, others in flies, or grasshoppers, or metallic wood-boring beetles, and so on.  I knew a spot where we could be sure to see some cicada killers (Crabronidae: Sphecius speciosus), which are wasps that are big enough that they can actually fly while carrying a cicada, and their burrows look like they could be the work of a small mammal rather than an insect.  The cicada killers did not disappoint, and at one point we got a good look at a mating pair:


Lang was excited enough about the cicada killers that he came back two more times to get additional footage.  When Julia and I joined him for his third visit, he showed us the spot he had found where the males all hang out together while the females are busy hunting and bringing back cicadas to their burrows.  His mission this time was to get footage of a wasp carrying a cicada into her burrow.  This proved to be a major challenge, because when you saw one coming, there was no way of knowing which burrow it was heading for, and when it landed it would zip into the hole so quickly that if I was lucky I might manage one shot like this…


…but there was no time to set up a tripod with a video camera before the wasp disappeared. Eventually we decided to place a twig over a burrow, just to slow the wasp down enough to get the camera set up.  When the wasp returned, she dropped her cicada and flew away.  Lang got everything ready and removed the twig, but when the wasp came back again, she seemed confused about where her burrow was, and she started dragging the cicada every which way across the sand. While Lang waited patiently for her to get her bearings, I followed her around and managed some better shots, including this one:


She then proceeded to run up Julia’s leg, continuing until she bumped into the lens of Julia’s camera:


If I’d been a little quicker, this could have been a great in-flight shot:


Around this time, another insect showed up–I seem to remember it being a fly–and chased the cicada killer back and forth over our heads several times.  Presumably it wanted to lay an egg on the cicada so its offspring could devour it after being deposited in the cicada killer’s burrow.  Eventually, the wasp managed to lose her pursuer, came back to the ground, and Lang got beautiful footage of her finally dragging the cicada into her burrow (which I’m hoping he will post on his website one of these days…).


The Montague Plains are now facing another assault, this time from Kinder Morgan, the energy company formerly known as Enron, which proposes to put a major natural gas pipeline through at least 148 “permanently protected” parcels across Massachusetts.  This proposal is not based on need; as Kinder Morgan’s public affairs vice president candidly stated at an informational meeting last fall, the company bases its decision to go ahead with a project based on two criteria: 1) whether they will make money on it, and 2) whether the government will let them do it.  The second criterion is no problem, since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, like its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission, virtually never denies a project.  And their decision, too, trumps any state or local laws, such as those governing “permanently protected” conservation land.  The first criterion will also be no problem, because the plan is to export a good chunk of the gas overseas AND have electric ratepayers in New England cover the cost.

The cicada killers likely won’t be affected by this pipeline, and maybe it’s just fine for public and private land to be taken through eminent domain for the sake of enriching a corporation with a terrible environmental record.  And maybe I’m just being a NIMBY for not wanting Kinder Morgan to put one of the largest natural gas compressor stations in existence–with three turbines each droning louder than the loudest rock concert in history, belching formaldehyde and other chemicals into the air–right next to a conservation area that is within a mile of my house.  It could be that choosing to live within the evacuation zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant isn’t enough of a sacrifice for me to make.  But the fracking to obtain this gas is destroying livelihoods and communities in other parts of the country, not to mention causing earthquakes and contaminating aquifers with a long list of toxic chemicals.  And not to mention that natural gas (methane) is an even more potent greenhouse gas in the short term than carbon dioxide, and is just another fossil fuel rather than the “bridge to a clean energy future” as is often claimed.

It’s easy for people to be convinced that all this devastation and all these pipelines are necessary when all they pay attention to is the price of electricity (especially when the supply and price are being deliberately manipulated in order to convince them).  But I can’t help but think that the $3-4 billion cost of this pipeline would be better invested in efficiency, conservation, and renewable technologies.

I guess all I’m saying is, it would be nice if everyone could think a little more about where our energy is coming from so I can stop worrying about these assaults on my local landscape and get back to thinking about bugs.

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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16 Responses to Cicada Killers and the Bigger Picture

  1. Robert Jonas says:

    Charley, This is a really fine article, integrating the Small World with the large, expansive and dangerous Larger World of politics, energy and high finance. Please send this piece to the Atlantic, Mother Jones and/or one of the national environmental magazines. Keep watching and writing!

  2. Lang Elliott says:

    OK … I promise to pull my footage together and publish it before the next cicada season.
    p.s. is that pipeline supposed to go right through the area where we worked?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Bravo Charley. So well stated, and especially vivid with your example of the life that inhabits the area. I agree with Jonas that it deserves wider circulation! Peggy

  4. David says:

    Very motivating way of telling the story. I spent much time on the Plains. I hope they can be preserved.

  5. Carol Senske says:

    Excellent article and horrifying description of the continuing assaults on this treasured locale. Greed! If only we could turn that greed into greed for natural places and things; greed to keep them for us and our following generations. Unfortunately, most greed is for the wrong kind of “green”. I’m so glad you write as well as you do:>)

  6. kentiki says:

    People are very short-sighted. They overlook the ultimate cost for the current price. Great post.

  7. Pamela Polloni says:

    You are right on! May we place an excerpt of your article in the BCCCI newsletter that will be published on or about March 15th on

  8. Great post, Charley! I live in the Berkshires and was not aware of this place; I’ll definitely have to make a trip, sounds great.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Beautifully written, it gets the point across and makes the reader understand what kind of a world and a country we are living in and will leave to our children and their children.

  10. Ron Parry says:

    Thanks for the excellent post. I agree with the comments that others have made regarding the bigger picture that you present. Those of us who care about the natural world need to be endlessly vigilant. Kinder Morgan should have their corporate charter revoked. According to Wikipedia they have been cited by the US government for 24 incidents that led to five Federal enforcement actions between 2006 and 2014.

  11. Rob Moir says:

    Cicada killers are fascinating but it’s the dirty sting of frackers that have us all alarmed. Charley this is really excellent in so many ways. Thank you.
    I love that sandy, pitch pine scrub oak forest in central MA. I had the privilege of mist-netting and banding birds there in the early 1970s; I was not alone.

    When Sam Lovejoy felled that tower on the sands of Montague, no new nuclear power plants were proposed or built in America for three decades! The Atomic Energy Commission was so Washington-bound that they were caught off guard, speechless, when the locals said No, Not in our neighborhood! Not in our watershed, Not upwind, Not anywhere!

    Today, we are wiser and act before structures are put up. We must once more proclaim clearly to Kinder Morgan no pipeline, no compressor station, no compromise. We do not want dirty energy. We know what natural gas extraction does to the people who live near the fracking. The harming of citizens, even indirectly by injected chemicals that seep through the shales and slates, is inhumane and unacceptable. Not in America, and not on our own local landscapes. Government must protect citizens from harm before subsidizing corporations.

    You need not take my word. Read what Naomi Klein says on “Blockadia” in This Changes Everything.

    What began on outwash alluvium of an ancient Lake Hitchcock in Montague, and with the Clamshell Alliance on the coastal sands of NH, now thrives in nations around the world today, including the French Riviera outside St Tropez.

    We are not alone.
    With an eye towards lessons for us all, I recommend this article with details and specifics on what happened in France.
    “The French movement against shale gas and oil fracking has included an international dimension from the outset. First, because the principal mobilizing tool, the film Gasland, was shot in the US. But also because the mobilizations in Quebec, which achieved a semi-moratorium, were used as a point of reference. A common language made it easy for French people and French local groups to read news coming from Quebec and to forge links with local Quebec groups. Soon, the slogan “Neither here nor elsewhere” became widespread. Following the achievement of the law banning fracking, interest in learning more about the situation in other countries has steadily increased. Many links have been forged, initially interpersonal ones, then some group twinning, especially between French and Quebecois groups has emerged. Now, a new step has been initiated: structuring these links and the building of a European, or even an international coordination, of the grassroots movements. After the meetings we organized in Marseilles (France) during the Alternative World Water Forum FAME (march 2012) and in Rio (Brazil) during the People’s summit (June 2012), each with participants coming from several countries, the next step is the Global Frackdown day that will be held on the 22nd of September.”

  12. Chris R says:

    Thanks so much for this article, great stuff. I too look forward to Lang’s new site!

  13. Pam Dawling says:

    Great post, thanks for including the tiny details of cicada killers and the bigger picture of environmental short-sightedness. I was amazed to hear Lovejoy’s Nuclear War mentioned! I saw this documentary in England in the late eighties! I think, but am not sure, that it was part of the Open University programming. Pre-internet, I think we got up early to watch it at 7am at a neighbor’s house (we didn’t have TV)

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