In this article, we look at all the Tarantula Hawk facts that you have always wanted to know!
Known for their fierce stings and the ability to take down spiders that every other creature fears, tarantula hawks are one of the most curious insects in the world.
These wasps are often the subject of our fear and admiration from afar. But what are they like up close?
Where do they live, and what do they eat? Do they actually eat these spiders?
In this article, let us take a closer look at the Tarantula Hawk wasp.
What Are Tarantula Hawks?
Tarantula Hawks (Pepsis Genus) are spider wasps (as the name itself suggests).
Spider wasps are parasitoids whose larvae feed on live spiders in order to grow and pupate.
These wasps can grow up to two inches in length and have colorful wings that help to ward off potential predators.
You can find them all over the southern United States and Central and South America.
Unlike many other wasps, Tarantula Hawks are solitary. They don’t make nests or nesting colonies.
Instead, they prefer to live alone and make their own nests.
Tarantula Hawks are famous for two things: their ability to bring down tarantulas that are almost twice their size and their powerful sting, which is mentioned as one of the fiercest stings in the insect world.
What Do Tarantula Hawks Look Like?
Tarantula hawks are large and distinctive-looking wasps.
They range in size from 1 to 2 inches in length, with colors ranging from steel blue to deep purple metallic.
They have prominent orange or yellow wings and a thick black tail.
The tarantula hawk is covered in short hair that can also range in color from dark blue and brown to orange and yellow.
Their bodies are robust, with two pairs of bright eyes with up to 700 facets each.
What Does A Tarantula Hawk Eat?
Adult tarantula hawks feed on nectar from flowers such as mesquite trees, milkweed flowers, and soapberry trees.
They may also suck on fermented fruit juice, which sometimes even has an intoxicating effect on them.
Female tarantulas hunt large spiders (from where they get their names) to use them as food for their larvae.
These wasps hunt and paralyze tarantulas, lay eggs on them, and the larvae then devour the spiders.
In some cases, however, if the eggs do not hatch for any reason, the spider will regain its ability to walk away from the nest and escape getting eaten.
Where Do Tarantula Hawks Live?
Tarantula hawk wasps can be found all over the world. Most commonly, you might see them in southern Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, and South America.
In the United States, two types of tarantula wasps exist Pepsis and Hemipepsis. There are 18 species of Pepsis wasps and only 3 of the Hemipepsis variety.
The most common of these 21 bugs are the Pepsis Grossa and Pepsis Thisbe.
Both of these are brightly colored wasps. The P. Grossa, in fact, has a metallic blue body.
Tarantula Hawk Wasps live in habitats such as scrublands, grasslands, arroyos, and deserts.
They generally dig their own burrows in the soil as nests.
Sometimes, they also use abandoned nests of other creatures, including their own brethren.
Adult wasps hunt at dusk and spend the rest of their day feeding on nectar from flowers, honeydew, and insects.
Tarantula Hawk Wasp Nest
The tarantula hawk nest is actually much bigger than it looks on the surface. At the top, all you see is a small one to two-inch hole in the ground.
These nests are built to trap and immobilize tarantulas for their larvae.
As we mentioned earlier, Tarantula Hawks don’t kill or eat these spiders themselves.
These wasps lay egg sacs on the spiders so that once the larva hatches, it can feed on the still-alive tarantula.
The nests provide a safe space for the larvae to pupate and overwinter, emerging as adult wasps in summer and spring.
For this reason, what looks like just a small hole in the ground goes deep into the ground and has several small chambers.
Each one is meant for a single egg and tarantula.
Female wasps hop around the burrow to recognize its contours so they can find it again.
They then search for tarantulas, trapping each one and laying an egg before bringing in another, also covering up the entrance every time.
Life Cycle of A Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawks have a complete life cycle with all stages.
It starts off with the female mating and starting to look for a suitable place to lay her eggs.
Once the nest is created (as we explained above), the wasp starts laying them and putting food in the burrow for the larvae.
The larvae eat the tarantula graciously put there by the mother, grow larger, pupate, and then eventually, after two to three weeks, emerge as an adult.
Here’s each stage in more detail.
The female tarantula hawk paralyzes its prey with a poisonous sting and drags it to an underground nest.
She lays an egg on the spider and seals the burrow before seeking more prey for her eggs.
An average female lays around 13.4 eggs, requiring the same number of tarantulas in her lifetime.
A larva egg hatches into a first-instar larva. It starts to feed on the paralyzed spider, drinking the blood first.
It then grows over the course of 20 to 25 days, molting its skin four times and consuming part of the spider’s body.
Interestingly, the larvae understand how to leave certain organs like the nervous system and heart intact.
This helps keep its meal fresh till the very end, allowing them to eat up as long as possible.
In the last instar stage (the fifth one), the final embers of the poor spider get eaten, and the larvae begin to pupate.
It takes a couple of weeks for them to emerge as adults. These adults overwinter and wait till spring to come out of the burrows.
Adult Tarantula hawks reach up to two inches in length, with an orange and black body.
Females have a 0.3-inch stinger, while males do not, although they appear aggressive.
Both sexes drink nectar from milkweed flowers.
How Long Do Tarantula Hawks Live?
Tarantula hawks live on average for 1-3 years.
This can significantly vary depending on things like which region they are in.
In the desert and semi-arid places in the US, Mexico, and parts of Central America, climate plays a major role and also affects the availability of food.
Female tarantula hawks usually live longer than males because they use their larger size and ovipositors to defend themselves better in their dry environment.
Do Tarantula Hawks Bite?
Do they ever?
Tarantula hawks are feared for their painful sting.
However, they are actually not aggressive and will only sting if provoked.
The venom in their stings is not lethal to humans, but it can cause excruciating pain.
The wings of the tarantula hawk have an aposematic coloration which warns other species away from them.
Tarantula hawks use their claws to capture tarantulas which they then lay eggs on when taking them back to the nest.
If a person ever gets stung by a tarantula hawk, they should try general methods of relieving pain, such as ice packs and over-the-counter pain medication.
What Are Tarantula Hawks Attracted To?
Tarantula hawks feed on fruits and berries, which is why they are attracted to flowers.
Mesquite trees and milkweed are their favorites.
They are also attracted to bright lights, and sometimes they are attracted to porch lights during the evenings.
It has also been reported that these wasps are attracted to sugary foods because they are connected to the nectar of flowers.
How To Get Rid of Tarantula Hawks?
While tarantula hawks are not immediately dangerous to humans, it is better that you remove them from your property.
This is because children or pets might irritate them and get bitten in the process, which can be very excruciating.
Here are a few steps needed to get rid of Tarantula Hawks through insecticides.
Wearing protective clothing, such as thick fabric materials, boots, gloves, caps, mufflers, and masks, should be your first step in wasp prevention.
This will help keep you safe from any bites should adult wasps attempt to attack.
Insecticide powder can be used to attack underground wasp nests by covering their entryway with moist soil and doing so at night when the wasps are inactive.
An alternative is pouring fuel, such as gasoline, on the nest and trapping the wasps with fumes before digging out their nests.
To get rid of tarantula hawk wasp nests, locate them during the day and spray resmethrin at night.
Use insecticide dust to block wasps from escaping, then wait a day or two for them to die before removing the nest.
What Eats Tarantula Hawks?
There are only three known predators of tarantula hawks because these wasps have evolved some very amazing defense tactics.
Bullfrogs and roadrunners are the two animals that will dare attack them upfront.
Bullfrogs swallow them whole while roadrunners catch them in one swift motion without getting stung.
Kingbirds are also capable of catching tarantula wasps.
Tarantula Hawk Defense Mechanisms
Tarantula Hawks have such few predators because of their size, painful sting, and use of color to scare off potential predators.
They use color patterns like red-yellow-orange on their wings as a warning to stay away.
These wasps also make buzzing sounds and release an odor to ward off attackers.
If provoked, they can deliver a painful sting that is lethal in some cases.
All these defensive mechanisms help tarantula hawks avoid confrontations with predators.
Tarantula Hawks vs. Other Insects
Due to the powerful sting of the tarantula hawks, there are several insects with whom they are often compared.
As per the Schmidt Pain Index, Tarantula Hawk stings are lesser only to the bite of the bullet ant. Let’s compare them to various insects in the sections that follow.
Tarantula Hawks vs. Bullet Ants
Bullet ants and tarantula hawks are two fierce arthropods.
Bullet ants measure around 0.7 to 1.2 inches in length, while tarantula hawks can reach up to 2 inches in length.
The sting of a bullet ant is more painful than that of a tarantula hawk, as the pain remains for up to 24 hours after being stung.
Both insects are found mainly in South and Central America, with tarantula hawks inhabiting other areas around the world.
Neither is known to be aggressive towards humans unless provoked.
Tarantula Hawks vs. Executioner Wasps
Executioner wasps are large wasps measuring 1 – 1.1 inches, with the biggest reaching up to 1.3 inches. The tarantula hawk is larger at two inches long.
Both species of wasps are venomous.
However, the executioner wasp’s venom contains norepinephrines and histamines that can cause burning sensations and necrosis,
On the other hand, the tarantula hawk’s venom serves only to paralyze the spider.
On the pain index, both species have a rating of 4/4. Both species feed on caterpillars as adults.
Tarantula Hawks vs. Asian Giant Hornets
Asian Giant Hornets and Tarantula Hawks are both large wasps that can grow up to 1.75 inches and 2 inches, respectively.
Asian Giant Hornets have tiger-like stripes and pincers, whereas the Tarantula Hawk has an electric shock-like sting.
Both species inflict painful stings, but the Asian Giant Hornets are more aggressive and dangerous since they often attack in swarms, while the Tarantula Hawk is not a social wasp.
Interesting Facts About Tarantula Hawks
- Female Tarantula Hawks are known for their exceptionally long and powerful stingers, which can grow as long as 0.3 inches.
- They are one of the few species in the world that have almost no natural predators. Such animals and insects are called apex predators.
- New Mexico considers the Pepsis grossa as its state insect.
- Since the female tarantula hawk needs to lay eggs and bear the burden of making the nest, the mother lays more food for females in the nest.
- Males live just a few weeks, and their primary job is just to mate with the females.
Frequently Asked Questions
How painful is a tarantula hawk sting?
A tarantula hawk sting is incredibly painful. Justin O. Schmidt, the father of the Pain index, described it as “blinding, fierce, relentless and shockingly electric”.
The majority of people who get stung feel excruciating pain that can last up to two hours and can cause paralysis in some cases.
Some victims have reported feeling pain radiating down their backs, arms, and legs, lasting for several days after the initial sting.
Why is it called a tarantula hawk?
A tarantula hawk is called that because it preys on tarantulas.
This large, brightly-colored wasp has a powerful sting. It uses this stinger and its venom to paralyze and capture its prey, usually a large tarantula.
It then drags the spider to its burrow, where it lays eggs on it.
These eggs hatch into larvae that feed off of the spider.
The name comes from this behavior – the hawk-like actions of attacking and carrying away the prey.
What happens if a tarantula hawk stings a human?
If a tarantula hawk stings a human, intense localized pain can result, lasting up to an hour or so.
The area around the sting may swell and turn red.
However, in general, the stings are not actually serious and rarely cause any further health complications, such as additional nausea, or affect important bodily functions.
In extremely rare cases, there could be an allergic reaction requiring medical attention, but this is highly unlikely unless you already have an existing allergy to wasp venom.
How powerful is a tarantula hawk sting?
A tarantula hawk sting is very powerful and painful for humans. Most people compare the pain to a strong bee sting that can last up to two hours.
While most victims do not experience any lasting effects, some reports show side effects such as headache, nausea, paralysis, and even temporary memory loss.
This sharp agonizing pain is thought to be the tarantula hawk’s self-defense mechanism against potential predators.
People should make sure they never disturb or provoke these interesting creatures; instead, they should admire them from a safe distance!
We hope you understand now that tarantula hawk wasps are more misunderstood than fearsome. These wasps are solitary creatures who just want to live their lives in peace.
Unless and until we humans step into their world or irritate them in any way, they normally never come after us.
But if they do decide to take action against someone, be aware that despite their slender 2-inch frames, these wasps are apex predators.
And there are some very valid reasons why they are called so – their sting can easily take down a human as well.
Thank you for reading!
Our readers have often enquired about this most enigmatic of insects.
Please go through some of their letters, checking in with us, asking us several questions, and showing us pictures that they have taken of these wasps.
The purpose of writing this article (and several others) was these letters, and hence we want to ask all to go through them as well.
Letter 1 – Tarantula Hawk
Large flying insect
Though there wasn’t a letter or question here, we love this photo of a Tarantula Hawk.
Dang! I was hoping it would be something new and interesting to your site! Oh well…I’ll keep on the look out for other bugs of interest. 🙂 Thanks for your time, Bugman!
Letter 2 – Tarantula Hawk
More unidentified critters I photographed one at a local park here in Southern Cal. Hoping you could help me identify them. Thanks Rus Hi Rus, You have outdone yourself with this Tarantula Hawk, Pepsis species photograph. The orange antennae are not something we are used to seeing. Curved antennae signify a female who has a powerful stinger. She uses it to paralyze tarantulas, the food for the larval wasps.
Letter 3 – Tarantula Hawk
This bugger about 1 1/2 – 2 inches long red winged giant ant looking thing has been hanging out on the wall in front of my house for the last few hrs This thing is creepy but leave it up to me to get in something’s face that scares me :-p I live in Anthem, AZ (30 min from Phoenix). I looked through your site and I found an entry that looked like mine the Tarantula Wasp. It’s a bit odd I would think they were nocturnal maybe it’s sick/dieing?i took plenty of pictures feel free to post however many. Take care,
Your Tarantula Hawk photos are quite nice. They are diurnal and visit flowers, especially milkweed.
Letter 4 – Tarantula Hawk
You are the coolest AND what the heck is this thing?
Ok, Bugman, so a friend of mine just emailed me a link to a picture of an insane centipede that he’d photographed at his place in Hawaii and it was the first I’d heard of your very cool website. Thanks for providing this service! And, as you are probably guessing by now from the kudos, I want something. 😉 By freak chance, I happened to save a couple of pictures of this crazy bug that my family and I saw on a trip down to Las Gaviotas, Mexico last summer (btw, it’s hard to tell from the pictures, but as I recall it was a pretty good size – a couple inches or so in length – or at least I thought that was a pretty good size till I saw the pictures of some of other bugs on your site!) – who knew that 6 months later I’d happen on your awesome website!?!? Anyway, I’m attaching copies of the pictures and if you do have time to let us know what it is we’d love to find out more about this creature! THANK YOU in advance if you do get a chance to investigate this one and thanks again for the cool site!
Swenson (Culver City, CA – though pictured bug was in Las Gaviotas, Mexico last August)
This is a Tarantula Hawk. Wasps in the genus Pepsis are known as Tarantula Hawks because the female stings and paralyzes Tarantulas to provide food for her brood. The sting is reportedly quite painful.
Letter 5 – Tarantula Hawk
what bug is this?
My 3 kids (twins boys =6 and my daughter =8) found this bug in our backyard. Never have we seen this type of bug in southern California (Orange County) before, we looked on your web site for answers and ended up seeing all kinds of really cool bugs, but not this one. The kids also took the bug to school to share and to identify, but had no luck. Can you please tell us what kind of bug this is and anything about it? Thank you in advance for sharing your wonderful knowledge with us. Thank You
Now that you know that this is a Tarantula Hawk, you should be able to find plenty of information, both on our own site and elsewhere on the internet..
Letter 6 – Tarantula Hawk
What kind of bug is this?
It was about the size of a small tarantula 3" long 1 1/2 wide, black with gold wings and feelers, walked like a spider and flew away
Hi Captain Ron,
It is ironic that you said this wasp was the size of a Tarantula when it is a Tarantula Hawk in the genus Pepsis. The largest Tarantula Hawks we have ever seen were in Northern Baja California on the Sea of Cortez and your photo reminds us of those beaches.
Wow, lucky guess I had,… And you too, It was actually taken in the northern beaches in Baja, but on the Pacific ocean side, 20 miles south of the boarder. Thanks for the info.
Letter 7 – Tarantula Hawk
Colorful flying thing….
I found a rather interesting bug, well a colorful one anyways, while on a hike in Irvine, California. I was wondering if you could help me identify it. I have two pictures, both are a little out of focus, but it should still be pretty visible. It was actually quite large, I would say close to the size of a finger (length-wise anyways). I apologize if you’ve identified it before. I tried looking through your site, but there are way too many bugs already here, and I hardly know what category to look under anyways. Thanks for your help. Cheers,
This is a wasp in the genus Pepsis, commonly called a Tarantula Hawk.
Letter 8 – Tarantula Hawk
Amazing photos I took of 4 species on and around Milkweed plants in Fremont Peak state park, California, on July 4th Hi What’s That Bug people, I took some really incredible photos on a hike in Fremont Peak. We found (at least) four species enjoying the blooming milkweed plants, and of particular interest were the enormous Pepsid spider wasps. I am attaching just one native-resolution photo (of the Pepsid), because they are 2Mb each on average, but I have hosted several more on Photobucket; hit the below links to check them all out. The attached photo isn’t the best, but it has the best view of the forewing cells – you can see the shape and size of many of them, which might allow for a species identification. We have: the Pesid wasp. We estimated they were at least 2 inches long. Blue Milkweed Beetle” or something related to it? At least two specimens photographed, Milkweed Longhorn Beetle” or related. My goodness these guys are charismatic. Especially see the head-on photo and profile photo. Some kind of “Milkweed Bug”, the yellow guy. He looks similar to a Small Milkweed Bug, except that he’s yellow instead of red. A darkling beetle. My wife says there are over 30,000 species. Any clue which one?? A velvet ant, including his burrow. But which velvet ant?? Monarch Butterfly larvae? Some kind of caterpillar, we think Monarch because of the location and the plant, but it’d be great if you confirmed. A cicada. They were buzzing mightily. We managed to spot one in the grass. Please feel free to use any of these photos, with the attribution to the photographers: Joshua Stanley and Marnia Johnston. They were all taken with a Canon Powershot A720 IS in macro mode on July 4, 2008 at Fremont Peak, California. Josh Stanley Hi Josh, Your Tarantula Hawk image is wonderful. We believe Eric Eaton has a special interest in this genus and he may be able to shed some light on the species where we cannot. Your multi-species letter is not really conducive to our archiving system and posting all of your wonderful images will probably take the better portion of the day, so we will limit ourselves to just the Tarantula Hawk. The caterpillar is a Monarch. If we have time after posting some other submissions, we may return to your letter and post an additional image.
Letter 9 – Tarantula Hawk
Blue Ant with Orange Wings?
I’ve been searching on your website and the internet in general the best I can, but I can’t find anything that looks like this. It looks like a huge metallic blue ant with orange wings. We live in Southern California. This was flying around in our backyard, and I’d like to know if it stings and/or is dangerous, etc. Thank you so much.
This is a wasp known as a Tarantula Hawk because it preys upon Tarantulas. They are not aggressive, but will deliver a painful sting if carelessly or accidentally handled.
Letter 10 – Tarantula Hawk
Giant black ant with wings? Fri, Jun 12, 2009 at 7:13 PM Ok, what is this thing? My son found it in our Southern CA backyard on a cool June day. We live in a desert area. I have never seen anything like this. It looked like a giant plastic ant, about 2 – 2 1/2 inches long, but with wings. It flew all around the yard and and climbed up the house wall for a while. Any idea what it is? Michael and Amanda in Santa Clarita Canyon Country, CA Dear Michael and Amanda, There is no way we can possibly answer the hundreds of emails that arrived in our week long absence, so we are only selecting subject lines that catch our attention. Your great subject line and spectacular photo of a Tarantula Hawk prompted us to choose your letter this morning. Tarantula Hawks are Spider Wasps in the genus Pepsis. The adult female stalks, does battle with, and stings and paralyzes Tarantulas to feed her brood, eventually burying the paralyzed Tarantula in a burrow and laying an egg. The hatchling wasp larva then has fresh meat upon which to feed. The sting of a female Tarantula Hawk is reported to be extremely painful. Male Tarantula Hawks do not sting. The antennae of the female are curled and those of the male more straight. Both adult male and female Tarantula Hawks feed on pollen and they are especially attracted to milkweed. We have seen large Tarantula Hawks in the Los Angeles River Bed, but they are more commonly found in desert areas like Joshua Tree. The largest examples we have ever seen, the size of a small bird, were on the beach in San Felipe Baja California Mexico.
Letter 11 – Tarantula Hawk
half the size of my hand, orange antennae that curl back, hairy, orange wings, black body, 8 legs Mon, Jun 29, 2009 at 9:20 AM I was walking outside and I saw this bug following me on the sidewalk. I let it pass me as I walked behind it I noticed how big it was and that it was not flying. I had to chase it to take a picture of it because it walks fast. IT has orange wings, orange hairy antennae that curl back when it touched something, a hairy black,blue body, look like a stinger back end but no stinger was present, big eyes, and when I captured it, it started to lay eggs which made me more interested. What type of bug is this? Jen Riverside, California, United States Hi Jen, This is a female Tarantula Hawk, a wasp in the genus Pepsis. You miscounted the number of legs, which should only be six. We are quite curious about your observation that upon capture, the Tarantula Hawk laid eggs. Here is what Charles Hogue writes about Tarantula Hawk in his book, Insects of the Los Angeles Basin: “When a female wasp finds a tarantula, she alights and engages in battle. The wasp then stings the spider on the underside between the legs and usually succeeds in paralyzing but not killing it. She has previously dug a shallow burrow, using her mandibles and legs as pick and shovel, or selected an earth crack, rodent burrow, or even the burrow of a tarantula for a nest, and she now drags the paralyzed prey into this hole, lays an egg on the victim, and then seals the tunnel with soil. A supply of fresh food is thus insured for the developing larva. The sting of the female tarantula hawk is described as extraordinarily painful by those who have experienced it.”
Letter 12 – Tarantula Hawk
Big Bug in Malibu! Location: Malibu California, in the hills. July 25, 2010 4:46 pm Hello, we were at the top of Latigo Canyon in Malibu and were able to get this shot of a rather large bug. It flew to a flower, presumably for nectar and I was able to get it as it flew away. The body alone was 2.5 to 3 inches long, huge with the trailing legs and antenna. Thanks for any info! Richard Hi Richard, What a beautiful image of a Tarantula Hawk leaving a stand of Matilija Poppies. Matilija Poppies are magnets for pollinating insects, and Tarantula Hawks are frequently seen on flowers, especially Milkweed. Tarantula Hawks are probably North America’s biggest wasps, and they are Spider Wasps in the family Pompilidae. As the common name implies, female Tarantula Hawks hunt and paralyze Tarantulas and Trapdoor Spiders to feed to their young. Your Tarantula Hawk is most likely in the genus Pepsis (See BugGuide).
Letter 13 – Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawk? Location: CA Central Coast hills above Monterey Bay July 29, 2010 10:59 am From pictures of wasps I went through on your website, I’m guessing what I removed from my house was a Tarantula Hawk Wasp. Saw one last year in the yard. We have plenty of tarantulas here for it to choose from, usually see those crawling around in April and November. I caught and released it on a sunny 80 degree day. James Romeo Hi James, Your identification of a Tarantula Hawk is correct.