Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk: Which Has a More Painful Sting?

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Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk

The insect world is full of fascinating creatures, and the urge to compare them is understandable. The executioner wasp vs tarantula hawk is a fight that many might like to see. Let’s compare these bugs to see who will win in a fight.

In 2018, Coyote Peterson, an American wildlife educator, came out with a Youtube video of his experience getting stung by an executioner wasp.

Previously, he had shared similar videos of his experience with the bite of the bullet ant and the sting of the tarantula hawk.

In this video, he overturned Justin O. Schmidt’s pain index. He declared that the sting of the executioner wasp (Polistes carnifex) was more powerful and lasted longer than both the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) and the tarantula hawk (Pepsis genus).

If you have the stomach for it, here is the video of his experience:

While Schmidt was probably the first to formalize the pain index, comparing the stings and other aspects of imaginary battles between various insects is a matter hotly debated among lovers of creepy crawlies.

For example, Peterson’s claims were hotly contested by a fellow YouTuber Danny Berk. He then shot another video of himself being stung by an executioner wasp seven times, with very little pain and swelling. Here is the video:

One such debate is often between the tarantula hawk and the executioner wasp, and in this blog, we will try to give an objective comparison between the two.

Executioner Wasps

What Are They?

Executioner wasps are large, yellow-colored flying insects (sometimes brown) that live in small colonies with a single queen wasp calling the shots.

The queen wasp lays eggs, while worker wasps forage for food in the form of macerated prey or nectar and bring it back to their nests.

These wasps make suspended nests under the eaves of buildings or on tree branches. The nest has several cells, one for each of the larvae growing in the nest.

These wasps are unique in that they have mandibles with teeth in them.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Executioner Wasp

Where Are They Found?

Executioner wasps are found in three main subspecies, each living in its own unique geography.

  • Subspecies Carnifex: This is commonly found in the US, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
  • Subspecies Boliviensis Bequaert: These wasps are found in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia
  • Subspecies Rufipennis: This subspecies is native to Venezuela, Panama, and Honduras

What do They Look Like?

Executioner wasps are yellow (with some brown and black strips). Even the antennae of these wasps are yellow.

They have reddish brown stripes on their head, and the dorsal part of their bodies is black. They have reddish-brown wings and dark-colored feet.

These wasps have mandibles with teeth, which they might use to chew on wood fibers and macerate their prey. The chewing of wood fibers creates a paper-like substance that these wasps use in building their nests.

While they have short mandibles, they are very wide at the base. The unique thing about the wasps is that they also have teeth, unlike most others of their species.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Executioner Wasp

Tarantula Hawks

What Are They?

Tarantula Hawks are a species of spider wasp. Spider wasps, as the name is amply clear, prey on spiders. But tarantula hawks are the most well-known species of this class of wasps since they hunt tarantulas, one of the most fearsome of spiders.

There are close to 300 species of tarantula hawks all over the world, divided into two classes: Pepsis and Hemipepsis. Out of these, 18 species are found in North America.

Spider wasps are digger wasps – they dig their nests in the soil instead of making overhanging nests. Moreover, these types of wasps are solitary, i.e., they don’t live in colonies.

They live alone, and female wasps generally dig separate holes in the ground to lay their eggs. Sometimes, however, two females might share the same nest.

The nests are designed with a simple 1-2 inch hole at the top and then a foot-long burrowed chamber below it. Inside, there are several smaller cells, each designed to hold only one egg and the spider it will prey on.

Tarantula hawks larvae parasitoids, i.e., they not only use the body of their prey as hosts, but they also eat it when they are done. Once they feed, they are ready to pupate and then come out as adult wasps.

The adults, interestingly, are primarily nectarivores and honeydew eaters. They only occasionally eat other (much smaller) insects.

Where Are They Found?

Tarantula hawks are found all over the world, in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, including the Indian peninsula.

In the US, they are common in the desert areas of southwestern states, such as Texas and Utah.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawk

What do They Look Like?

Most species of Tarantula Hawks are pretty huge. They have black bodies with metallic blue colors and very bright orange-colored wings.

The color of their wings is a warning sign to potential predators that they are dangerous – this is known as aposematism in the insect kingdom.

These wasps have legs to match their long bodies, and the legs have claws on their ends. This species has evolved such as unique leg structure because they have to carry their very heavy prey back to their nest after the hunt is over.

The female of this species has the largest stingers in the world.

How Big Are They?

In the insect world, who wins in a battle is usually decided not by the weapons or maneuverability. Often, the deciding factor is the size. Let’s start our journey here by comparing these two stinging wasps on this crucial parameter.

How Big Are Executioner Wasps?

Executioner wasps are pretty huge (you can get an idea of how big it is if you watch the video above). Typically they can be as long as 1 -.1.1 inches, and the biggest among them can grow up to 1.3 inches.

Among wasps, that’s pretty big, in fact, about the biggest they can get. The average joe wasp is usually between 0.3 – 1 inches long, so executioner wasps are clearly outliers.

But despite their size, they are not the ones who win the size battle here. The tarantula hawk still has them beat on this front.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Executioner Wasp

How Big Are Tarantula Hawks?

The largest tarantula hawks can grow to be as big as two inches. Yes, you read that right. It’s not just bigger than the average wasp; it just blows other wasps out of the water!

Tarantula hawks have a good reason for their enormous size. They need to be able to compete with their usual prey, which, as you might have guessed from their names, are the tarantula spiders.

Tarantulas can be as big as five inches, with a leg span of close to 11 inches (almost a foot). So if a wasp is to fight with a tarantula, it needs to be big and strong.

Which is More Venomous?

Both species of wasps are venomous. Their sting is not just empty like a pinprick; it hurts so much because it has venom in it.

Executioner Wasp

The wasps’ sting contains norepinephrines and histamines. These chemicals are neurotransmitters that cause a stinging or burning sensation for a long time when they are injected into the skin.

Interestingly, scientists believe that the purpose of the venom in Polistes wasps has more properties than simply causing extreme pain to an aggressor.

These are fairly complex secretions that also include sexual pheromones, as well as odors that help to raise the alarm among fellow wasps when someone is attacking.

Tarantula Hawk

The purpose of the Tarantula Hawk’s venom is much more straightforward – to paralyze the tarantula and leave it near dead for up to a few weeks so that the larvae can feast on it.

The content of a tarantula hawk’s venom is not known very well. The toxin it injects is named after itself, called the pompildotoxin.

Both alpha and beta pompildotoxin come together to disrupt the spider’s cortical neurons, which leave the spider nearly paralyzed and comatose for days.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawk

Whose Bite/Sting is More Painful?

Despite the shenanigans of Peterson, the accepted standard of judging the pain of the world’s stingers and biters remains the Schmidt sting pain index.

The executioner wasp was originally not on the Schmidt pain index, but many have proposed adding it on at the same level as the tarantula hawk. The tarantula hawk is rated as 4/4 (the highest level) on this index.

Here is how some other stinging insects fare in this pain level index to give you an idea.

WaspPain Index
Tarantula Hawk4
Warrior Wasp4
Executioner Wasp4
Western Yellow Jacket2
Paper Wasps1.5

However, there are differences in the feeling they espouse.

The executioner wasp creates a burning sensation at the site and may cause necrosis, locally killing the cells in the skin.

As per Justin Schmidt, it feels like hot oil has been poured over you. Moreover, it supposedly lasts longer than the tarantula hawk.

On the other hand, the pain of the tarantula hawk wasp’s sting is more like an electric shock and usually subsides in about five minutes.

The sting does not leave behind necrosis, but there might be swelling and redness leading to itching at the site.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawk

What Do They Eat?

What these wasps eat might also give you some idea of what kind of insect or bug they are capable of taking down in combat.

Executioner Wasps

These wasps are carnivorous, even as adults. They feed on caterpillars, whom they chew up and keep in their mouths as small balls. They carry these balls back to their nests to feed their larvae.

Executioner wasps have strong mandibles and jagged, claw-like teeth that help them chew insects.

Moreover, these wasps drink a lot of nectar from flowers, essentially for the carbs that they need for flying around. They contribute to the ecosystem as pollinators in the process.

The largest caterpillars are only about 1.5-2 inches long, so this wasp does not seem to be very scary in terms of its ability to defeat prey. Moreover, caterpillars are rather defenseless, so it’s probably easy to pick them off as dinner.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Executioner Wasp

Tarantula Hawks

Tarantula Hawks are surprisingly nectarivores as adults. They don’t eat the tarantulas themselves.

However, their larvae are the real carnivores who feed on the tarantulas that the adults provide.

Defeating the tarantula is perhaps one of the most impressive feats that these wasps achieve because tarantulas are almost twice their size.

Tarantula hawks are fearless predators as they flit around, hopping like a boxer to confuse their prey. They then lie flat on their backs and get in below the spider’s body to sting it in the abdomen.

The abdomen is a particularly weak spot for a tarantula. This spot is fleshy and is connected directly to the nervous system.

After stinging the spider two or three times in this spot, the tarantula hawk is able to paralyze them completely.

Then, they do their next most impressive feat – they bite off the legs of the spider and use their clawed feet to carry it back to their nest.

After taking it to their nests, they lay their eggs on the tarantula and leave them on the spider to hatch and feed off it.

So yes, tarantula hawks are clearly more impressive in terms of the size of the prey that they can handle.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawk

Who is More Aggressive?

Among wasps, aggression is typically a factor of territorialness. Social wasps are considered to be more territorial and, therefore, more aggressive than solitary wasps.

Tarantula Hawk

Tarantula hawks are solitary creatures. They don’t have a nesting colony, so there is nothing that they have to defend. They fly around drinking nectar from flowers and using the strength they gain to battle tarantulas.

If you approach them or try to handle them roughly, they will surely sting you. However, they do not usually go looking for humans or pets to sting. Their tendency to fight larger creatures is limited.

Executioner Wasp

Executioner wasps are social. Even though they make smaller nests with solitary queens, they are protective of their nests.

Therefore anyone coming close to their nests needs to be aware and maintain their distance.

Who Will Win in a Fight?

Coming to the final question, whose answer you have probably been waiting for?

In a fight between insects, there is never a clear winner. In terms of handling large predators or prey, the tarantula hawk clearly has an edge since its prey are typically much larger than itself.

Moreover, the tarantula wasp is also bigger in size and strength and has a longer stinger.

However, if the executioner wasp is first out of the blocks, its aggression might give it a clear advantage.

The winner ultimately will be the one to get in their sting first, in which case the executioner wasp has a slight edge.

All in all, it would be a fascinating (albeit imaginary) matchup to watch, and a lot will depend on who attacks whom first.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawk

Frequently Asked Questions

What animal kills tarantula hawks?

Tarantula hawks are interestingly nearly predator free. Their various forms of protection, such as their stingers, aggressive sounds, odors, and aposematism, ensure that few creatures have the guts to mess with these wasps.
However, roadrunners and bullfrogs occasionally do attack and eat them if they are around.
Bullfrogs are available only near water bodies, and roadrunners are also hard to come across, so these wasps typically spend their lives without fear of predators.

Which is worse, the bullet Ant or the tarantula hawk?

There is no clear answer, and we promise to write another blog on this terrific matchup of insects. However, the tarantula hawk does have a larger size and the ability to fly, so it does seem to have a bit of an edge.
That said, bullet ants almost always attack in groups, and if a swarm of ants is able to sting a tarantulas hawk, you can pretty much assume that its goose is cooked. 
Moreover, the bullet ant stings are considered even more painful and long lasting than the tarantula hawk, so its certainly an evenly matched contest.

Are executioner Wasps friendly?

Executioner wasps are social wasps. They live in nests and therefore have a protective instinct towards their nest. Hence, if you approach their nest at any time, it is possible they will consider you as a threat and attack.
However, in general, these wasps are not threatening. They will not go out of their way to attack you unless provoked.

What are the top 10 painful stings?

As per the Schmidt pain index, the top ten painful stings include
Level 4: Bullet ant, Warrior wasp, and Tarantula hawk wasps
Level 2.5: Trap jaw ant
Level 2: Western Honey bee, western yellow jacket, large tropical black ant, and glorious velvet ant
Level 1.5: Bulldog ant.
Level 1: Paper wasps, fire ants, and suturing army ants.

Wrap Up

It’s hard to make a call on the debate between these two wasps. Both sides have powerful and painful stingers, and both are pretty big compared to traditional wasps.

We would have to give a slight edge to the tarantula hawk here because of its larger size and fearlessness in tackling huge prey like tarantulas.

However, the executioner wasp is more aggressive and, if threatened, more likely to sting first. All in all, it would be a fascinating matchup.

Whichever side you may be, we hope this article has been able to pique your interest in these beautiful and amazing creatures, and it has given you a lot of information about them as well.

Thank you for reading!


  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Tarantula Hawks

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