With a name like tarantula hawk, you might expect to see some B-movie horror monster soaring out of the sky with eight legs, but the tarantula hawk is actually a spider wasp that hunts tarantulas. It is also one of the most poisonous insects in North America.
Tarantula hawk stings
Tarantula stings are ranked right up their with honey bee stings. Painful, but not debilitating. Tarantula hawk stings, however, are ranked as the second most painful in the world, with the African bullet ant being first. Tarantula hawk stings only last for 3 to 5 minutes, but all you can do during that time is scream bloody murder. Luckily, tarantula hawks do not sting unless provoked. [Apparently, we would be more reasonable to fear the tarantula hawk, than those big, furry spiders.] Unless you are allergic, tarantula hawk stings are not dangerous, just extremely painful.
Tarantula hawk description
There are actually 250 different species of tarantula hawk, worldwide, with 21 species in North America. The most common tarantula hawk found in California is Pepsis grossa, formerly Pepsis formosa. These parasitic wasps are 2 inches long, making them the largest wasps in North America. From above, they look black, with orange wings.
From below, you can see a metallic blue-black abdomen. These bright colors are a warning to potential predators that they might not be worth the effort (aposematism). They have no known predators. Tarantula hawk legs are long, with hooked claws, for grasping prey. Females have stingers that can be more than 1/4 of an inch long.
Tarantula hawk lifecycle
Adult tarantula hawk females hunt tarantulas as food for her offspring. If tarantulas are in short supply, they will also use grasshoppers and other large insects. She captures and stings her prey, injecting them with a paralyzing venom. Then, she brings it to a nest where she lays a single egg on the victim’s body. If this egg was fertilized, it will hatch as a female; if it was not fertilized, it will hatch as a male. Whatever the gender, when the egg hatches, the larva enters the prey and begins feeding. Interestingly, the larva know to leave vital organs of the still living edible for last, to keep everything fresh and delicious. In a few weeks, the larva pupates and emerges from its childhood meal as an adult, and the cycle begins again.
Tarantula hawk diet
Adult tarantula hawks are nectarivorous, which means they feed on nectar and ripe fruit. They feed primarily on the flowers of milkweed plants, and mesquite and western soapberry trees. In some cases, that fruit has become fermented and tarantula hawks can find flying difficult.
Imagine, if you will, a drunk tarantula hawk riding a terrified tarantula, buckaroo style. There may be a movie in there after all…
Did you know that tarantulas migrate each fall? Now you know.
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