Tarantula hawks are infamous for having the deadliest stings on planet earth. So where do tarantula hawks live? Is it likely for you to find them in your state? Let’s figure it out.
Around 133 known species of tarantula hawks are distributed across the world. However, they are found most commonly in Southern America and Central America.
They are named after their famous habit of preying on tarantula spiders.
In the United States, these wasps typically inhabit the desert regions of southwestern states like Texas and Arizona. They live in scrublands and desert habitats.
What Are They?
Tarantula hawks are spider wasps that belong to the family Pompilidae. They are named so as they prey on tarantulas and paralyze them for their own benefit.
These wasps measure up to 2 inches in length and are among the largest found on earth. They are black with some highlights of blue and brown colors.
Some species of tarantula hawk have rusty brown wings, while others bear black wings.
They are parasitoid wasps since their larvae live and feed on tarantulas for food. They sting spiders almost double their size, using their fairly big stingers, and making them paralyzed.
Then the wasp carries the spider down their nest so that its larvae can feast on it.
Where Are Tarantula Hawk Wasps Found?
You can encounter Tarantula hawk wasps around the world. Their locations around the globe include southern Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, and South America.
Only two types of tarantula wasps are found in the United States: 18 Pepsis species and 3 Hemipepsis species. They are found in deserts of the southern states in the US.
Out of those, the two most common Pepsis wasps found in the United States include Pepsis Grossa and Pepsis thisbe.
These two wasps are nearly indistinguishable as both have bright orange wings. But P.grossa has a metallic blue body, which is different from others in its family.
What is the Tarantula Hawk Wasp’s Habitat?
The wasps inhabit regions such as scrublands, grasslands, arroyos, and deserts. They are solitary insects and do not form colonies.
Instead, they dig burrows deep into the soil.
Tarantula hawks often skip building their own nests and occupy abandoned nests of other insects, such as the holes made by moles and rabbits.
Adult tarantula hawks mainly hunt around dusk and spend the rest of the day feeding on nectar from flowers, honeydew from aphids, and sometimes smaller insects as well.
Where Do They Build Their Nests?
As mentioned above, tarantula hawk wasps build their nests by digging the soil and burrowing deep inside sandy and soft ground.
The nest of the hawk wasp looks like a small hole in the ground. It has a diameter of around 1 to 2 inches. The size of the neck varies with the size of the wasp.
Female tarantula hawk wasps often inhabit abandoned nests of other animals. They also build their nest in natural cavities created in rocks over time.
Inside the nest, they build several chambers, each being a cell for one of their eggs and the host insect on which they lay their egg.
When the eggs hatch, each one feeds on the paralyzed spider that the female wasp has provided (leaving the vital organs intact till the end) and then digs out to the surface as an adult wasp.
What is the Tarantula Hawk Wasp Range of Flying?
Male wasps can fly hundreds of feet during mating rituals. They run upwards while spiraling and come back down, dive-bombing their competitor. Sometimes, they can do this for hours.
Confused? Let’s explain from the beginning.
Female wasps try to find the biggest spiders to lay eggs on it. This is important because the size of the wasp that grows out depends on the size of the insect it was laid on.
The larger the male wasps, the more potent they are in finding mates.
When the time for mating arrives, females tend to go to the highest available point and invite males to show their aerial skills to decide whom to mate with.
Usually, the males get separated into three classes. The largest males will go to the prime mating spots, such as tree tops, while the smaller ones will remain on the lower branches.
Some mid-sized male wasps tend to live as vagabonds, flying between the low and high territories.
These mid-sized wasps often challenge the bigger ones for mating rights. During these mating showdowns, male wasps get involved in fights.
The wasps don’t wrestle like beetles or other insects; instead, they race and get involved in a competition of aerial displays. This is the display we had talked about earlier.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do tarantula hawks bite humans?
No, they are solitary wasps and don’t have the burden of protecting any colonies from other creatures, so they are not aggressive by nature.
A tarantula hawk biting a human is a very unlikely scenario. It will happen only if the human is trying to disturb them or is causing some other harm.
What happens if you get stung by a tarantula hawk?
Tarantula hawks are not aggressive towards humans and would not sting you unless it feels threatened.
However, in the unfortunate event that you get stung, know that their sting is one of the most painful ones in the world.
It has been rated as the second most painful sting on the Schmidt pain index, and usually, it is so bad that one can do nothing except lie down and scream for three to five minutes.
After a while, the pain subsides, and you might be left with swelling or redness. You can try applying some numbing cream or soothing gel on it.
What states have tarantula hawks?
Tarantula hawks are mainly found in the Southwestern desert regions of the United States and Mexico.
They are found everywhere you can find tarantulas, including states like California, Arizona, and Texas.
They are distributed all over the world but are less or absent in Europe and Antarctica.
What do you do if you see a tarantula hawk?
You can try to get away from that place. Although the chances of it attacking you are rare, it is better not to take a risk.
Make sure not to mishandle or threaten it by any means. A tarantula wasp sting could cause unbearable pain, so keeping tarantula hawks away from your home is better.
If you search for a tarantula wasp’s location on a map, you will see that they are present across the world except for Antarctica and some parts of Europe.
They build nests mainly by burrowing holes in the ground or occupying natural cavities or abandoned burrows.
In the US, you can find them in all states that have Tarantulas, such as Texas, Arizona, and California.
Thank you for reading.
Our readers have sent us their photographs and tarantula hawk sightings from all over the world. Watch this glorious insect in its natural habitat in the pictures below.
Letter 1 – Ecuadorean Tarantula Hawk
Found this bug inside our house in Manta, Ecuador (South America). Have never seen it before. Is it a tarantula hawk?
Erika Schwarz Wilson
You most assuredly have a female Tarantula Hawk in a bottle. The female has the curved antennae. The females are the ones who attack, paralyze and bury tarantulas so her young will have a supply of fresh meat. She will also give you an extremely painful sting if you are not careful. We have never heard of a Tarantula Hawk with red antennae. She is beautiful.
Letter 2 – Cuban Tarantula Hawk
huge cuban wasp
Found this guy all dried up in a rural, Cuban town. He was massive, and a very iridescent blue which the camera unfortunately did not pick up that well. I trust that that needle-like butt appendage is his stinger? Ouch.
We are relatively certain this is a species of Tarantula Hawk in the genus Pepsis. These large irridescent wasps prey on Tarantulas, stinging and paralyzing them and then laying eggs. The comatose spider is a fresh food supply for the developing larva. Adults are pollen and nectar feeders and females have a nasty sting. We expect your photo will terrorize a few of our readers who claim their puny (by comparison) wasps are enormous.
Letter 3 – Tarantula Hawk from Mexico
Big Insect in Mexico Big Insect in Mexico Location: Mazatlan, Sinaloa Mexico December 26, 2010 3:08 pm We were staying on the 11th floor in a condo in Mazatlan when we were watching T.V. and it sounded like a small plane flew into the room. Big bug scared the family. It has some similarities to a hornet, but don’t know? Signature: TobyZ Hi Toby, We believe this is a Tarantula Hawk, a Spider Wasp in the genus Pepsis. Most of the members of the genus have metallic blue-black bodies and bright orange wings, but there are a few species with black wings including Pepsis mexicana. BugGuide has several images of Pepsis mexicana, including one that has a nice series of comments. Over the years, we have gotten many photos of insects and arachnids with very unusual choices of objects included for scale, but this is the first time a gallon of milk has been used to illustrate the size of a creature.
Letter 4 – Mexican Tarantula Hawk
Subject: Big black bug Location: Northern (lower) San Pedro River, Cochise County, AZ June 23, 2012 3:01 pm Do you have any ideas what this thing is? I’d love to know. I saw it along a wet section of the lower San Pedro River in Cochise County in southern Arizona at around 9:00am on 6/16/12. It was on the edge of the water, moving around a bit from plant to plant but otherwise not doing very much of anything. Thanks very much! Signature: LIsa in AZ Hi Lisa, We do not want to go too far on our identification until we have confirmation or correction from Eric Eaton. We believe this might be a Tarantula Hawk, Pepsis mexicana, which we found on BugGuide. Eric Eaton Responds Daniel: Yes, either Pepsis grossa (if gigantic), or Pepsis mexicana (if much smaller). Eric Hi Daniel- I hope this email actually gets to you! We certainly have Tarantula Hawks where I live, but I thought they always have orange wings. Is that not true then? Thanks very much! Lisa Hi again Lisa, We are forwarding Eric Eaton’s confirmation. You can see from the photos of Pepsis grossa and Pepsis mexicana from BugGuide that there are all black Tarantula Hawks, though orange wings and often orange antennae are the more common and aposomatic coloration for the genus. BugGuide also notes that Pepsis grossa is: “Very large, with two color forms: Orange-winged (xanthic) and black-winged (melanic). The two color forms are not often seen in the same locality. Melanic forms are easily confused with Pepsis mexicana, but that species is always much smaller in size than P. grossa.”
Letter 5 – Spider Wasp from Cuba is probably Tarantula Hawk
Subject: Mystery wasp Location: Cuba January 5, 2015 10:24 am I took these photos of this spectacular-looking insect in Cuba on December 11th last year. It was big – I suppose around 4 inches long. Having done a lot of searching on the net, I have not found any photos of an insect exactly like this one. It resembles pictures of tarantula wasps, but none of the others I’ve seen have the same colouring or the segmented yellow antennae. I did discover that there are tarantula wasp mimics, so perhaps this bug is a mimic? I hope you can help me. Thanks in advance Signature: Mary Dear Mary, This is a gorgeous Spider Wasp in the family Pompilidae, and it could well be a species of Tarantula Hawk. Your individual looks very similar to Pepsis menechma which is pictured on BugGuide. In 2006, we posted this image of a Cuban Tarantula Hawk, but alas, it does not show the antennae. We are postdating your submission to go live during our absence from the office next week. Ah yes, I did see the dried-up bug photo and wondered if it had looked like mine when alive. You’re right my blue bug was gorgeous and I was very lucky to see it on my last morning before leaving to fly back to England. Many thanks for your help, Daniel. Mary
Letter 6 – Great Basin Wood Nymph and Tarantula Hawk sighting
Subject: Great Basin Wood Nymph and Tarantula Hawk sighting Geographic location of the bug: Westridge-Canyonback Wilderness Park, California Date: 07/03/2021 Time: 9:42 AM PDT Your letter to the bugman: Dear Readers, Daniel was excited to try out a new hydration pack on his hike with Sharon today, and while near the lowest part of the hike, just above Mandeville Canyon, he spotted a small lepidopteran, suspected a Funereal Duskywing and was pleasantly surprised to quickly discover it was a Satyr or Nymph, but when it landed, it vanished, avoiding Daniel’s perception despite him knowing the exact 4 square inch plot of ground it had landed on before vanishing perfectly camouflaged among the fallen leaves. After about a minute and a half, Daniel espied it and got this image of what he believes to be a Great Basin Wood Nymph, which is pictured on both the Natural History of Orange County and BugGuide. According to BugGuide: “Above, wings are brown. Below, female has two large eyespots on the forewing, male has two smaller ones” indicating this is a female. After Daniel got this image and a few more from further distances, he decided he had snuck up close enough to have to startled the butterfly into flight, and once he verified the image was of acceptable quality, he moved in for a closer shot, but could no longer spot the elusive Nymph who had changed her position slightly enough to once again avoid Daniel’s detection. Earlier in the morning, Daniel is positive he saw an all black Tarantula Hawk near the blooming narrow leaf milkweed that was likely either Pepsis grossa or Pepsis mexicana. It seemed pretty huge to, so we are guessing the former based on Eric Eaton’s comments on this prior posting.