Tarantula Hawk Facts: The Ultimate Guide to Tarantula Hawks

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.

Tarantula Hawk

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.

Tarantula Hawk
Tarantula Hawk

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.

Tarantula Hawk

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.

Tarantula Hawk

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.

Laying Eggs

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.

Growing Instars

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.

Tarantula Hawk

Pupation

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.

Adults

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.

Tarantula Hawk

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.

Protective Clothing

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 Power

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.

Tarantula Hawk

Resmethrin

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.

Tarantula Hawk

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!

Wrap Up

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!

Authors

    by
  • 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.

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6 thoughts on “Tarantula Hawk Facts: The Ultimate Guide to Tarantula Hawks”

  1. This Pepsis is P. mildei, one of our two largest species in Southern California. At one time large numbers of P. mildei and P. thisbe could be seen frequenting the blooms of scalebroom plants in the canyons of Orange County.

    Reply
  2. I noticed that the antennae of the insect was yellow and the wasp was small, bringing me to the conclusion that this as a pepsis elegans wasp, a tarantula hawk mimic. It is still a spider hawk, but not a tarantula hawk.

    Reply
  3. They are a plague in the Burbank CA Verdugo mountain trails and Griffith Park area. They buzz the hiking trails and sometimes get thick. Once I found out how dangerous they are, I don’t hike the trails in Summer. Only paved roads. My question is, if they hit a human on the trail when they are flying fast, will they sting the human or little child?

    Reply
    • We have a hard time thinking about a native species that does not compromise human food sources or occur in such great numbers as to constitute a nuisance as being a plague. Tarantula Hawks are not aggressive towards humans, but they will sting if provoked. We doubt that an accidental collision with a human, either adult or child, will result in a sting.

      Reply

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