Tarantula Hawks, are scientifically recognized as members of the genera Pepsis and Hemipepsis, and they are not just any other insect. They are beautiful, formidable and scary in equal measure. There are over 350 species of these little insects across their two genera, which form part of the family Pompilidae, commonly known as Spider Wasps.
With their charming metallic sheen and powerful sting, they have a rather unique relationship with tarantulas, turning them into a food source for their young. These wasps exist around the world, on every continent except Antarctica. Most of them live in the Americas though, particularly South America.
These big insects won’t sting you unless provoked, but if they do, it is notoriously painful!
Appearance & Characteristics of Tarantula Hawk
Most Tarantula Hawks measure around 1.5 to 2 inches in length, but some can be much bigger. The largest, Pepsis heros, can reach a length of 11 cm (4.3 inches). There is an example of this wasp from Peru in the Natural History Museum in London, England.
Their metallic blue-black body stands out and depending on the species, their wings can either be a matching shade or a contrasting yellow-orange, edged in black.
They have long, velvety black legs, equipped with hooked claws, perfect for hunting. The females are recognizable by their curly antennae (as opposed to the straight ones in males), and are the hunters of the species.
Males will often be spotted eating nectar or loitering at the highest part of a plant, in an effort to spot any approaching female that might be interested in courtship. Females are the hunters, and are often spotted on the ground in hunt of a tarantula spider for dinner. This is where most stings are likely to happen, but treading on a female accidentally, or getting too close and being seen as a threat.
How painful is their sting?
Described by some as the most painful insect sting in North America, the Tarantula Hawk’s sting is nothing short of intense. Imagine a bolt of lightning shooting through your body, and that might come close.
It is rated as the second most painful sting of all, only beaten by the bullet ant. But, here’s a silver lining: the pain, though excruciating, lasts only for about five minutes. Pain from the sting of the bullet ant on the other hand can last for up to 24 hours!
How dangerous are they?
While their sting is a force to be reckoned with, Tarantula Hawks are not naturally aggressive towards humans. They usually reserve their sting for hunting or defence. So, while it’s wise to give them space, there’s no need for undue alarm if you encounter one.
The sting, although excruciating, is not anymore dangerous than the sting from a common wasp. It shouldn’t require any medical attention other than for those allergic to wasp stings.
Distribution – Location and Habitat
They love arid and semi-arid environments, as well as warm, tropical rainforests. As such, they are native mostly to countries that have these conditions. Species from the Pepsis genus are only found in the Americas. From as far north as Utah In the USA, to as far south as Argentina in South America.
Species from the Hemipepsis genus are found both in the ‘new world’ and the ‘old world’ on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. The only continent that you won’t find them on is Antarctica. Though they are mostly found around the middle to sub-tropical latitudes.
They thrive in the heat, actively flying close to the ground during the summer months in search of prey. If your area is known for wild tarantulas, it’s a good bet that these wasps are lurking nearby. Anywhere tarantulas live, you will find at least one species of Tarantula Hawk.
How likely are they to infest a home or garden?
Unlike some pests, Tarantula Hawks aren’t known to infest homes or gardens. They are unlikely to build their own extension onto your home, as they quite solitary rather than swarm insects. They are far more interested in finding a tarantula to feed their larvae than invading your home.
The Lifestyle & Behaviour of Tarantula Hawk
Living a solitary life, each Tarantula Hawk is on its own unique mission. While the adults are content with nectar, pollen, and fruit, the females have a more daunting task: hunting tarantulas to provide for their young. Before she does this, she will prepare a pre-dug out burrow to which she can later drag her prey.
Using their powerful sting, the female will paralyze these tarantula spiders, turning them into a live buffet for their offspring. She will then drag the spider back to her burrow, or remain in the spiders nest if that is where she found it.
They then lay a single egg on the spider, and when the egg hatches, the larvae burrow into the tarantulas body. Once inside, it will eat away at the still-living but paralysed spider. Feasting on the blood at first, then the tissue. Eventually it will emerge from its buffet and when it does, it will be a fully grown tarantula hawk.
Adult males on the other hand, live a far less savage life. They are content to sip on nectar and don’t take on the duty of preparing the tarantula host for their offspring. They have been observed locating and loitering in areas where they might have the opportunity to reproduce. Other than that, it is a fairly docile life for the male.
Diet & Nutrition of Tarantula Hawk
As mentioned above, adult Tarantula Hawks have a penchant for sweet nectar, fruit juices, and pollen. In this stage of life, they are nectarivorous – which is a very specific, nectar eating type of herbivore. As larvae however, they are carnivorous. Their first meal is an opportunity for their mother to showcase her hunting prowess. With precision, she will sting and paralyze tarantulas, ensuring the spider remains a fresh, living meal for their larvae.
No tarantula spider has ever been known to win this battle, the wasp wins every time. Their notoriety is so much so, that many other predators, not just tarantulas, will try to avoid these wasps at all costs.
Predators & Threats to Tarantula Hawk
Given their formidable nature, Tarantula Hawks have few natural enemies. Most would-be predators tend to keep out of their way. They have likely learned to respond this way due to the exceedingly painful sting of these wasps. That’s not to say that they are not without foe though. Roadrunners in particular are known to be able to prey on these wasps without adverse effect, and bullfrogs have been known to challenge them too.
Tarantula Hawk Reproduction
The life cycle of the Tarantula Hawk is intricately tied to their spider prey. After successfully hunting and paralyzing a tarantula, the female wasp lays her eggs on the immobilized spider. There is a gestation period of about 3 to 4 days. As the larvae hatch, they feed on the still-living tarantula, ensuring they receive fresh nourishment as they grow.
Pupation usually lasts 2-3 weeks, and they will continue eating throughout this time before eventually emerging. It is only their first meal that is carnivorous. As the Tarantula Hawk reaches maturity they convert to their adult diet of nectar, and live their solitary lives.
Lifespan of Tarantula Hawk
The exact lifespan of a Tarantula Hawk can vary, but some accounts place it to be around a year. It is likely to vary by species, but this is an average. Like many insects, they undergo several stages of life. From egg, to larvae, to pupae then finally they will mature as either a worker female, a male or a queen wasp.
Population and Conservation
With at least 133 known species of Pepsis, and at least 180 known species of Hemipepsis, Tarantula Hawks have a significant presence in the wild. Their role in the ecosystem is crucial, helping not only to control tarantula populations, but in acting as significant pollinators. None are currently listed in the IUCN red list.
5 Fun Tarantula Hawk Facts for Kids
- Tarantula Hawks can grow up to 11 cm long (Pepsis heros), and females are usually bigger than the males.
- They’re called Tarantula Hawks because they hunt and kill tarantulas, even though the spiders are bigger than them.
- While adult Tarantula Hawks also love sweet nectar, female wasps hunt spiders for their babies.
- Their sting is incredibly painful, even for humans! But unlike some wasps, they’ll only sting if they feel threatened.
- Their metallic blue-black colour makes them incredibly attractive, even if they are a bit scary.