Tarantulas and tarantula hawks are two fascinating creatures found in the Southwest United States. While tarantulas are the largest spiders in the region, tarantula hawks are large, metallic blue and orange wasps. Both species can be quite intimidating, but you might be interested to find out how they interact with each other.
As you may know, tarantulas primarily feed on insects like grasshoppers and crickets. However, they can also consume small mammals or baby birds in certain cases. Tarantula hawks, on the other hand, have a different diet where a single tarantula hawk can sting and paralyze a tarantula and lay its eggs on the still-living creature’s abdomen.
The wasp larvae that hatch from the eggs rely on the paralyzed tarantula for sustenance. This interaction exemplifies how nature can sometimes be both captivating and ruthless. As you dive deeper into this article, you’ll learn more about the unique relationship between tarantulas and tarantula hawks, as well as their individual characteristics and behaviors.
What Are Tarantulas and Tarantula Hawks?
Overview of Tarantulas
Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders that are part of the Theraphosidae family. They are typically characterized by their size, weight, abdomen, and fangs. Some species can grow up to 11 inches in leg span and weigh up to 3 ounces. These spiders have impressive features, such as their sensitive hairs and barbs that help them detect their surroundings and defend themselves from predators. They create burrows in their natural habitat, which is often found across the southern United States, Mexico, South America, and on some Pacific islands.
Overview of Tarantula Hawks
Tarantula hawks belong to the Pepsis genus and are actually a type of wasp. Their bright orange wings, rust-colored wings, or blue highlights on their black bodies make them easy to identify. Tarantula hawks typically inhabit the southwestern United States, Mexico, and parts of South America. They use their paralyzing stingers to prey on tarantulas and are known to have one of the most painful insect stings.
Characteristics of Tarantula Hawks
- Large size (up to 2 inches long)
- Bright orange or rust-colored wings
- Blue highlights on black body
- Paralyzing, curved sting
- Docile behavior (unless threatened)
Exploring the World of Tarantulas
As a tarantula, you have a strong exoskeleton and powerful fangs that can inject venom to paralyze your prey. You might live in a burrow to protect yourself from predators and lay in wait for insects to pass by your entrance. Tarantulas like you mostly rely on senses (hairs, barbs) to detect movement and find prey.
The Battle: Tarantula vs Tarantula Hawk
When a tarantula hawk meets a tarantula, the battle for survival begins. The wasp’s goal is to paralyze the tarantula with its sting so it can lay an egg on the helpless spider. Tarantulas, on the other hand, will attempt to defend themselves using their natural defenses, which include their venom-loaded fangs and barbed hairs.
Female tarantula hawks rely on their sting to paralyze a tarantula. Once the spider is paralyzed, the wasp will drag it to a secure location and lay a single egg on the spider’s abdomen. The hatched larva will then feed on the paralyzed tarantula, eventually consuming the entire spider.
Tarantulas can be found across the southern United States, Mexico, South America, and some Pacific islands. Tarantula hawks inhabit the southwestern United States, Mexico, and parts of South America.
Danger to Humans?
Although tarantula hawks have one of the most painful insect stings, they are generally docile towards humans. They tend to be nectar-feeding pollinators and are typically not dangerous unless provoked. However, in the case of an allergic reaction to the sting, immediate medical attention should be sought.
Scientists and Their Role
Researchers like entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, who developed the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, study the chemistry and biology of insect stings. These scientists contribute valuable knowledge on the pain level and potential danger of stings, helping us understand the roles insects play in our ecosystem.
Conservation and Ecosystem Role
Both tarantulas and tarantula hawks play important roles in their ecosystems. Tarantulas help control insect populations, while tarantula hawks serve as pollinators and keep tarantula populations in check. Understanding their habitats and protecting them is crucial for conserving wildlife and maintaining biodiversity.
Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.
Letter 1 – Tarantula Hawk with prey in Costa Rica
I hope you can help explain what’s going on in this picture. I was on top of the mountain taking sunset photos when luckily I looked down and saw what looked like a giant wasp dragging a trantula. The wasp was walking backward. Both insects were very much alive. I thought I read that their is some flying insect that captures live prey and then pulls it underground to lay eggs on it and the young feed off the paralyzed captive. I followed this pair until they disappeared into the long grass. Could you please tell me if that is indeed a wasp and what it plans for the spider? I live in Costa Rica. Thanks,
The information you have heard is basically correct. Tarantula Hawks are large wasps in the genus Pepsis found in the Americas. The female wasp stings and parazyzes a Tarantula and drags it into a burrow where she lays an egg. The young wasp larva hatches and has a fresh food supply, eating the Tarantula alive. Thanks for the awesome photo.
Letter 2 – Food Chain: Tarantula Hawk and Spider
I recently returned to London from Mexico where I snapped this wasp and spider at the mayan ruins in Palenque Chiapas. The spider was not dead but appeared to be paralysed – it’s legs were slowly twitching and the wasp was running around with an amazing intent. I thought that the spider might be a trapdoor – as there was a hole nearby – but it had no door – so thought it may have been the wasp’s burrow. I watched them for some time but nothing definitive happened and too many people were gathering so I left. Since looking at your excellent site I have identified the wasp as a female Tarantula Hawk but am still unsure of the spider. Couldn’t find any shots of wasp and spider – so I thought you might be interested in these. I hope you can open them I use a Mac.
Wow, thanks for the awesome image. We are so happy you found the identity of the Tarantula Hawk on our site. We also believe this is a Trapdoor Spider.
Letter 3 – Tarantula Hawk dispatches Tarantula
Tarantula Hawk vs. Tarantula
Dear What’s That Bug Folks,
First, I love your site, and recommend it to every natural history buff I encounter! I have to be careful not to spend TOO much time on here perusing all the amazing photos and the answers you provide. Second, I live in Southern California on the San Diego/Riverside County line and a few weeks ago we happened to spot our first tarantula here so I ran to get the camera. I was very excited until a very large Tarantula Hawk buzzed onto the scene. We realized that it was too late to save this spider as the wasp had already stung and paralyzed him. I got photos of the wasp as she drug the spider down one slope, across the driveway, and down another slope into a hole she had already discovered or dug. My husband reluctantly agreed to use his foot for scale in the first photo, but that was before I told him that pepsis wasp stings were reportedly very painful! Thanks for such a great bug resource,
San Diego CA
As far as photographs on our site go, this series has to rank in the uppermost percentile. Thank you so much for submitting your awesome Food Chain images of a Tarantula Hawk securing a meal for her progeny.
Letter 4 – Tarantula Hawk with Tarantula
While on vacation in Arizona, we were hiking in the desert and came to an area where we were almost being chased off by this flying insect, the we saw why, attached photos we took very carefully, but what am amazing sight to see, I know the “T” was paralyzed, but that’s a big arachnid to be carried away by a bug. Anyway my question is, what’s that Bug?
Your wasp is a Tarantula Hawk, a Spider Wasp in the genus Pepsis. The female Tarantula Hawk will drag the paralyzed Tarantula to a burrow and lay an egg on it. Adult Tarantula Hawks are frequently found drinking nectar on Milkweed and other desert flowers. We are lamenting that your photo isn’t of a higher resolution because we would have loved to crop and enlarge it.
Letter 5 – Tarantula Hawk feeding on Narrow-Leafed Milkweed in SLO County
Browsing My Photos
Location: SLO County, California
January 10, 2013
san luis obispo county.
lots of lovelies at and near our house in paso robles!
you should come up one of these days.
have you seen the view?
Clare Marter Kenyon
Thank you so much CLare,
This is a gorgeous photo that illustrates the importance of food plants to perpetuate animal species. The Milkweed Meadow supports amazing ecosystems. The complexity of the web of life surrounding the Tarantula Hawk is astounding since it is so particular about its diet, especially that of the larvae. We once posted this photo of the danger of preying upon a predator. We here at What’s That Bug? have seen a Tarantula Hawk in the Los Angeles River Bed in August several years ago, but never one in Mount Washington.
Letter 6 – Tarantula Hawk on Milkweed
Location: Los Padres Nat’l Forest north of Ojai at a campground
july 15, 2013
the tarantula wasp was taken at the same location/date.
Thank you Clare.