The solitary great golden digger wasp

This enchanting creature, photographed by Daniel Pepper in Seattle, is a large and gentle solitary wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus. Commonly known as the great golden digger wasp, it is distributed throughout North America. One of its most striking features is the dual-colored abdomen—black and orange—and the bright orange legs. These wasps are also big. The males average about 19–20 mm long, and the females are a bit bigger at 23–24 mm.

More hairy than most

The great golden digger is hairier than most wasps, sporting a golden fringe on its head and thorax. Wasp hairs and bee hairs differ, and if you were to look under the microscope, you would see that wasp hairs are straight and unbranched, while bee hairs often have multiple branches, perfect for snagging pollen. Since wasps don’t collect pollen, branching hairs are unnecessary.

The great golden digger wasp lives in fields and meadows, especially those with sandy soils. During the months of June through October, the female preys on insects in the Orthoptera order, such as grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, and katydids—all of which go to feed her young.

Building a nest

To build a nest, the female wasp first digs a main tunnel straight down into the ground. From there, she adds a series of cells that radiate from the central entry. In each cell, she places a paralyzed insect, ready to eat. When preparations are complete, she lays a single egg on top of each insect. Once the wasp larva emerges, it gets the full meal deal: an entire insect all to itself. Each adult female lays about 10 eggs in her lifetime.

The adult wasps are commonly found on plants such as Asclepias (milkweed), where they stop for a drink of carbohydrate-rich nectar. They also forage on Eryngium, Monarda, Solidago, and other plants, depending on the season.

Once classified as Apis

I find it interesting that in 1758 Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, first placed this wasp in the bee genus, Apis. In fact, its original name was Apis ichneumonea. Then in 1783 it was re-classified into another genus, Nomada, which are cleptoparasitic bees. The new name became Nomada surinamensis. It wasn’t until 1833 that it was moved into the wasp genus Sphex, and became Sphex aurifluus. Even though it has lots of hair, which is confusing, the fact that it catches insects should have been a dead giveaway that it wasn’t a bee. On the other hand, perhaps they classified specimens in the lab, rather than watching them in the field. I wish I knew.

Honey Bee Suite

Great golden digger wasp

A great golden digger wasp nectars on Asclepias. Note the black and orange abdomen. © Daniel Pepper.

Great golden digger wasp 2

Here you can see the hairy head and thorax, looking very bee-like. © Daniel Pepper.


  • Hi Rusty – – I know you use ultimate bottom boards and this year I switched out to use those as well on my two hives. The bottom boards are great. Unfortunately, when it came time to vaporize for mites Using my Varrox vaporizer it would not fit through the front entrance. I’m wondering if you can tell me whether or not you use a vaporizer and if so which brand will fit through the front entrance of an ultimate bottom board?

  • Hmmmm…you can find many solitary great golden digger w.a.s.p. in hollywood. A hive of the closely-related, non-solitary variety can be found it the Hefner mansion.

  • Rusty,

    By watching this wasp attempt to catch honey bees, I learned the incredible reflexes and flight ability honey bees have. I could hardly believe my eyes! The digger would lie in ambush for a honey bee, which was busy foraging. It seemed easy picking! But every time, the honey bee took off and did @ a 2′ in diameter circle spiraling upward at a great speed with the digger, also showing amazing flight ability, just inches behind. I saw this 6-8 times in a half an hour and as far as I could tell, no honey bee was caught.

    • Mike,

      Drama in the bee yard. I spent a lot of time this summer watching bald-faced hornets snatch honey bees right out of the air. If they fell to the ground, I separated them, but they are persistent. Sometimes I netted them together, and the hornet still wouldn’t let go.

  • Mike,

    You can vape from the top of the hive, too. Remove whatever covers your uppermost brood box, and put a square of sheet metal with the corners bent down to act as short legs on top of the frames for a heat shield. Lay your vaporizer pan on the sheet metal with the appropriate amount of OA, place a spacer rim (about 2″ tall with a narrow notch cut in the edge to accommodate the stem of the vaporizer) on top of the brood box, place a non-flammable cover on the spacer rim, and hook up the battery. Of course, you want the panel in under your bottom screen and the entrance plugged with a piece of rag, etc. Make sure you don’t have a bunch of wax on top of the frames where it could catch fire.

  • Just use your hive tool to gently lift the front of the hive (bottom brood box), insert the vaporizer, cover the entrance and then lift again to pull out. Narrow entrances do not allow the vaporizer in the hive, one must use the wide entrances for that to work. I wish someone would make a bottom board with a side slit to fit the vaporizer, that way one can treat from the side and not disturb the entrance … or cook the bees. This is my project for next year, making slits in my bottom boards to fit a vaporizer. If you put a slit between the screen and the white board, you can vaporize easily and not start the hive on fire! Whoever decided to put ‘fire’ in the hives in this way had to be crazy! Plumb crazy!

  • Wow, thanks for sharing this fascinating photo and information. You are a wealth of knowledge, Rusty, and it’s so fun to follow your posts. I love learning about all the bees out there, and your descriptions have always fascinated me. I also found myself reluctant squish wasps this last summer/fall, thanks to your educational information. The wasps in our area didn’t seem to be as menacing to our hives (they seemed to only want to share the sugar with my honey bees, not attack and eat them, as before). And these same wasps ~~ although plentiful ~~ did not sting dogs or humans (unlike last year’s wasps).

    Hopefully, these pollinators also are respected as much as honey bees. Thanks for all your good work and the help you provide to all of us beekeepers!!

  • Beautiful photos of a pretty insect. Thank you, Rusty!

    Speaking of drama in the bee yard — I try to separate my bees from any malicious wasps, too. I am sure it’s more difficult with hornets, given the difference in size.

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