A tarantula hawk (Pompilidae) is a spider wasp that feeds on the largest spiders, tarantulas. Tarantula hawks can be found in a variety of Pepsis (which are a genus read on Wikipedia) and Hemipepsis species. They have developed as efficient tarantula predators becoming an adversary tarantulas are or should be afraid of.
They are one of the largest parasitoid wasps, paralyzing their prey with their sting before dragging it to a brood nest as live food; a single egg is laid on the prey, which hatches into a larva that eats the still-living prey.
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Physical Characteristics of the Tarantula Hawk
Common species have blue-black or purple bodies and brilliant, rust-colored wings, and can grow up to 5 cm (2 in) long, making them among the largest wasps (other species have black wings with blue highlights).
The bright color on their bodies, particularly their wings, is an aposematism, signaling to potential predators that the wasp can administer a deadly sting. Their lengthy legs have hooked claws that they use to grapple and wrestle their prey. A female Pepsis grossa’s stinger can be up to 7 mm long, and the intense sting is considered one of the world’s most excruciating insect stings.
Behavior of the Tarantula Hawk
The female tarantula hawk wasp strikes a tarantula between the legs, paralyses it, and takes it to a specially constructed tunnel, where a single egg is placed on the spider’s belly and the entrance is covered.
However, hawk wasps will scour the desert floor looking for desert tarantulas, scenting out many holes and burrows, and after paralyzing the spider will sometimes use its own burrow to store the spider instead of dragging its prey to elsewhere.
Feeding Larva – Not for the Faint of Heart
Fertilized eggs generate females, whereas unfertilized eggs make males, determining the sex of the larvae. When the wasp larva hatches, it makes a small hole in the spider’s abdomen and enters, feeding voraciously yet avoiding essential organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive.
The larva pupates after a few weeks. Finally, the wasp matures and exits from the abdomen of the spider to complete the life cycle.
Tarantula hawks are nectarivores as adults. Consumption of fermented fruit intoxicates them to the point that it becomes impossible for them to act coherently and they can often be seen stumbling on the desert floor at dusk.
While wasps are most active during the day in the summer, they avoid extreme temperatures. The female tarantula hawk’s male counterpart does not hunt. Milkweeds, western soapberry trees, and mesquite trees provide food for both males and females.
Hill-topping is a behavior reported in male tarantula hawks, in which they climb in wait on tall plants and look for passing females eager to reproduce. For hours into the afternoon, the males can become resident defenders of the most sought after reproduction locations.
Habitat of Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula hawks can be found all over the world, from India through Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. There are at least 250 species of tarantula hawks in South America, including some as far north as Logan, Utah, and as far south as Argentina.
Pepsis grossa (previously Pepsis formosa) and Pepsis thisbe are the most common Pepsis and Hemipepsis species in the United States, with Pepsis grossa (previously Pepsis formosa) and Pepsis thisbe being the most common Hemipepsis species.
Although the two species are difficult to tell apart, P. grossa has metallic blue bodies and reddish antennae, which distinguishes it from P. thisbe. The wings of both species are bright orange and translucent at the tip.
Sting of a Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula hawk wasps are generally calm and only sting when provoked. The sting of P. grossa, in particular, is among the most severe of any insects, yet the agony lasts just approximately five minutes.
The sensation was described by one researcher as “…instant, intense, unremitting pain that renders one unable of doing anything but screaming. In these circumstances, mental discipline just does not work.” The wasp’s sting is rated towards the top of the Schmidt sting pain index, second only to the bullet ants.
I asked Justin O. Schmidt, PhD, of the Southwestern Biological Institute, an expert in insect stings and author of “The Sting of the Wild,” how intense the sting of a tarantula hawk’s sting is on humans and he confirmed that:
Intense pain usually lasts 2 to 5 minutes, then vanishes. Lingering pain is not typically experienced.Justin O. Schmidt, PhD, of the Southwestern Biological Institute
Few animals can eat the hawk wasp because of their extraordinarily huge stingers; one of the few who can is the roadrunner. Many predatory animals avoid these wasps, while a variety of insects, including other wasps and bees (Müllerian imitators), moths, flies (e.g., mydas flies), and beetles (e.g., Tragidion), mimic them (Batesian mimics).
Apart from the risk of an allergic reaction, the sting is not harmful and does not necessitate medical treatment. Local redness arises after the pain in the majority of instances and can linger up to a week.
Interesting Facts about Tarantula Hawk
- Because it takes a lot to paralyze a tarantula, the tarantula hawk’s sting is exceedingly unpleasant – only the sting of the bullet ant, which is found in Central and South America, is more excruciating, according to the sting scale written by Justin O. Schmidt.
- Tarantula hawks, aren’t interested in stinging humans unless you trap them and use tweezers to grab them.
- In 1989, the state of New Mexico picked a tarantula hawk species (specifically, P. formosa, now known as P. grossa) as its official state insect.
The tarantula hawk was chosen after a group of Edgewood elementary school students conducted research on states that had designated state insects. For a statewide election, they chose three insects as candidates and mailed ballots to all schools. The tarantula hawk wasp emerged victorious.
Q & A About the Tarantula Hawk
Is it possible to be killed by a tarantula hawk?
The tarantula hawk is a clever parasite that preys on tarantulas rather than humans. Only a human who is allergic to it’s bite risks serious health issues.
What are the habitats of tarantula hawks?
Tarantula hawks can be found in the southwest deserts of the United States. Pepsis thisbe can be found in the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and inside the canyon, where their food, tarantulas, are plentiful.
In what class are tarantula hawks?
Tarantula hawks are in the class: Insecta