Most people assume that since tarantula hawks hunt tarantulas, they must be eating them, but that’s not the case. So what do tarantula hawks eat, if not spiders? Let’s find out.
A tarantula hawk is a species of spider wasp that preys on tarantulas!
Large wasps that cause painful stings are always a threat if you run into them. But wasps large enough to take down tarantulas? Yikes!
But the truth of the matter is that these wasps are only hunting tarantulas as food for their larvae. The adults are actually just nectar feeders.
Let’s learn more about what tarantula hawks eat.
What are Tarantula Hawks?
Tarantula hawks belong to the family Pompilidae or spider wasps. One of the largest predatory wasps in the wild, the tarantula hawk wasps grow up to 2 inches.
These wasps have blue-black bodies and brightly colored orange wings. The wing color is one of the key identifiers of these large wasps.
Tarantula hawks are dangerous predators, and a tarantula hawk sting is one of the worst insect stings in the world.
Their stings are powerful enough to paralyze their prey, which they then drag back to their nest using hooked claws on their legs.
They are a type of parasitoid wasps; they not only lay eggs on the spider but also become food for the larvae when they hatch.
They are mostly active in the daytime during summer but avoid very high temperatures.
Where Are They Found?
Tarantula hawks live on all continents of the planet, except Antarctica.
There are approximately 250 species of the wasp found in South America alone, while other types live in North America, Asia, Australia, and Europe.
In the US, there are 18 species of these wasps, mainly found in the desert areas of southwestern states like Texas, Colorado, and Utah.
The two common species found in the US are called Pepsis grossa and Pepsis thisbe. These two species are quite difficult to tell apart due to their similar appearance.
You can identify the P. Grossa by their blue bodies and red antennae as compared to the black bodies of the P. Thisbe.
What Do The Adult Tarantula Hawks Eat?
Like other common wasp species, adult tarantula hawks are nectarivorous, meaning that they derive their nutrition from the nectar of flowers.
These wasps feed on fruits and flowers like mesquite trees, milkweed flowers, and soapberry trees.
Often these wasps can be seen stumbling mid-flight because drinking too much fermented fruit juice has an intoxicating effect on them.
It is only the female tarantula hawks that hunt large spiders like the tarantulas.
The main purpose of their hunt is to lay their eggs on these spiders and use them as food for the larvae.
What Do the Larvae Eat?
The wasps are the ones who actually get to eat these tarantulas. Female tarantula hawks hunt and bring a paralyzed spider to their nest.
While they are still living, the wasps lay a single egg on them. The same spider then becomes the meal for the larvae when it hatches.
But here is the catch about the hunted tarantulas! Most spiders are instantly paralyzed, stay alive for a few days, and then get devoured by the larvae.
However, if the wasp egg does not hatch for some reason, the spider will be able to walk again and escape being eaten.
While it is uncommon, tarantulas have escaped their brutal fate sometimes.
How Does the Tarantula Hawk Hunt Tarantulas?
Tarantula hawks have a strange but interesting way of hunting spiders. Once they set a target, the wasp stings the tarantula on its abdomen.
They grasp the fangs of the spider to prevent any attack and sting them multiple times. Once paralyzed, they drag the live spider to their nest.
Why Do They Hunt Them?
Tarantula hawks hunting spiders have a two-fold purpose.
- First, the spiders become a nesting ground for adult females to lay their eggs.
- Secondly, once the egg hatches, the larvae can use the spiders as their food.
How Do They Paralyze The Tarantula?
Tarantula hawk stings are one of the most powerful stings in the world.
While they are only painful to humans, they can prove paralyzing (or sometimes even lethal) for spiders that these wasps hunt.
The wasp uses venom in its sting to paralyze the spiders and disable them completely.
Some wasps flip on their back and crawl beneath the spider to sting them.
Others dart at the spider and grab them with their rear legs. The wasps use their legs to restrain the spider’s fangs and deliver one powerful sting.
They attack the one chink in the spider’s armor – its abdomen to deliver their sting. The wasps can also sting multiple times just to make sure the spider is fully incapacitated.
How Does it Take The Tarantula to its nest?
Tarantula hawks take their prey to the nest, where they can start the process of laying eggs.
Usually, they will catch the spider using the claws on their legs and pull them to a burrow.
It is possible that the wasp will take the spider back to its own burrow or a hole that the wasp is borrowing from some other creature or wasp.
Once they reach the nest, the wasps will turn the paralyzed spider upside down and lay a single egg on its body.
It is usually on the abdomen of the spider but can also be on the head or sometimes on the back.
How Do the Larvae Feed on The Tarantula?
As the egg of the tarantula hawk hatches on a paralyzed prey, the larva creates a tiny hole in the spider’s abdomen.
They enter the body through this hole and start eating away at the organs, keeping the spider alive the whole time.
The process continues over a few weeks till the larva pupates.
The adult wasp will emerge from the abdomen of the spider, continuing the cycle with another tarantula.
In some cases, the larva targets the vital organs of the spiders first and then goes to the non-vital organs.
Some of the species try to keep the spider alive longer, making the most of the meal.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do tarantula hawks only eat tarantulas?
Typically the adult wasps feed on nectar from flowers, overripe fruits, and small insects.
A tarantula hawk is known by that name because they hunt tarantulas, not eat them.
Female wasps mainly hunt the spiders to lay their eggs. Their larvae feed on these tarantulas; the adults do not.
What animal kills tarantula hawks?
Tarantula hawks are difficult to hunt due to their large size and powerful stings. Bullfrogs, kingbirds, and roadrunners are the only ones that hunt them.
However, most of these creatures are hard to find in the areas where these wasps live, which are deserts. Therefore, these wasps often live predator-free lives and grow older than most of their brethren.
What do you do if you get stung by a tarantula hawk?
Unfortunately, there is not much you can do if you get stung by a tarantula hawk.
Scientists consider it to be one of the worst and most painful insect stings in the world.
So the safest thing to do is to scream for help and try to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Are tarantula hawks aggressive?
Tarantula wasps are solitary creatures that are not very aggressive. They are usually defensive only if you approach them or try to handle them.
If you look out and keep your distance from these fairly large wasps after spotting them, there is little chance of you getting stung.
Scary as they may be, tarantula hawks are not the worst enemies of humans. They are mostly solitary insects that feed on nectar from flowers.
They help to keep away large spiders from your garden, which they use as food for their larvae.
The best thing you can do if you encounter them is to stay out of their way and let them continue what they are doing.
Thank you for reading!
The unique way in which Tarantula hawks hunt down giant, hairy tarantula has fascinated many of our readers over the years.
Please go through some of their emails below and see some of the moments captured by them.
Letter 1 – Tarantula Hawk
What is this?
I found this bug (dead) on the ground while camping at a lake in the dry central valley of California last August. It is far larger than a quarter and has a blue iridescent shine. It appears to have a small stinger and the curly antenae lead me to believe it is some kind of hornet. I have never seen anything like it here in CA! (It has a piece of straw hanging out if its mouth, which was kind of funny!) Can you tell me what it is and if they are normally seen in this region?
You found a dead female Tarantula Hawk genus Pepsis. They are found in arid regions of California. Females are recognized by their curved antennae. They are easily recognizeable by their blue-black bodies and orange wings. Large females can grow to two inches, though we have seen even larger ones in Baja California Norte, Mexico. The female locates a tarantula, stings it to paralyze it, drags it to a burrow and lays a single egg on it. The egg hatches and the larva feeds on the still living tarantula, a fresh food supply. The females can also deliver a painful sting to people.
Letter 2 – Tarantula Hawk
Florida-sized bug in California Location: San Diego, CA October 27, 2010 1:47 am I came across this huge thing in an average suburban neighborhood in San Diego, CA on a cool, wet day. I’m a 33 yr old native and have never seen anything like this of this size. It was about 2” in size. What is it? Signature: Jessica Hi Jessica, Your insect is unmistakably a Tarantula Hawk, one of the Spider Wasps in the genera Pepsis or Hemipepsis.
Letter 3 – Tarantula Hawk
Flying Bug on Yarrow Location: Austin, TX April 30, 2011 6:59 pm This bug was found at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX – I believe the flower that it’s visiting is called yarrow. Taken on April 26, 2011. Signature: Jennifer H Hi Jennifer, Ladybird is our favorite first lady because of her campaign to beautify America by planting trees and shrubs. This magnificent Spider Wasp is a Tarantula Hawk, a member of several genera that hunt Tarantulas to feed to their young. The female Tarantula locates a Tarantula and stings it which paralyzes the Tarantula, but does not kill it. The female Tarantula Hawk then buries the spider after laying an egg. The larva of the wasp then feeds on the living but paralyzed Tarantula which ensures the meat is fresh. The vital organs are eaten last. The sting of a Tarantula Hawk is reported to be quite painful. Only the female stings. These large distinctive wasps, generally with black bodies and red wings, are frequently seen taking nectar from flowers including milkweed. You can find more information about Tarantula Hawks on BugGuide.
Letter 4 – Tarantula Hawk
Possible Tarantula Hawk Location: San Antonio, TX July 8, 2011 2:08 pm Was out takinb pics and got a few of these they were really large 1 to 1.5” and there were at least 50. I was walking slowly through taking flower, plant and bug pics. They did not seem to mind me much, but were more interested in the flowers. Is that what this is? Signature: Renee Hi Renee, We agree that this is a Tarantula Hawk, and Bugguide has some images of Tarantula Hawks with black tipped wings.
Letter 5 – Tarantula Hawk
Giant Winged Ant? Location: El Cajon, CA 92021 September 1, 2011 11:23 am It looked like a giant ant. It was approximately 2 inches long with a green body that was segmented like an ant and it had brown wings. The climate when I saw the bug was over cast and cool. It was between 8-9 am. Between 62-70 degrees. It’s generally very hot in this area of San Diego but it’s a very mild morning. It was in the grass and then on a tree (palm). Hope you can figure it out and let me know because I’m facsinated to know… Signature: Thanks! We really wish we had seen this magnificent Tarantula Hawk, Numero Uno on our Big 5 list of Bugs that really know how to defend themselves around silly humans.
Letter 6 – Tarantula Hawk
Subject: San Diego Location: San Diego, 92131 November 6, 2012 2:38 pm Is this a wasp? An ant? Signature: Peter Hi Peter, The Tarantula Hawk is a large wasp that preys upon Tarantulas. The are much more impressive alive than they are dead. The sting of a female Tarantula Hawk is reported to be quite painful, however, they are not aggressive towards people, but they will sting if provoked or carelessly handled.
Letter 7 – Tarantula Hawk
Subject: What is this? Location: Scripps Ranch, San Diego, California March 14, 2013 2:05 pm Hello, A few months ago I found this bug against the glass doors in my house. I have been wondering for so long what it was and I’m finally trying to find out. It moved pretty slowly and didn’t seem to fly because it walked all the way across our patio. I asked my parents and no one knows. Please help! I used to live in Point Loma, San Diego, California and never saw it but as soon as I moved north to Scripps Ranch, San Diego, California I saw it. Signature: From Lindsey Hi Lindsey, This magnificent Spider Wasp is a Tarantula Hawk. The female is reported to have an extremely painful sting.
Letter 8 – Tarantula Hawk
Subject: What’s this bug? Location: Moorpark college July 21, 2013 11:20 pm I found this guy on the moorpark college campus. He was dead when I found him which was sad. . He was about 2” long. Signature: You rock! This is a Tarantula Hawk and they are much more impressive living and in action than they are dead. Hopefully you will have an opportunity to witness a living Tarantula Hawk in action.