Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tarantula Hawks

I consider wasps my favorite insects. The honest truth is that I first took interest in them because nobody could call me a sissy for collecting an insect that could fight back! The more I learned, though, the more fascinated I became with their behaviors and sheer diversity. The solitary “spider wasps” of the family Pompilidae are one such example.

Here in Arizona, spider wasps reach the gargantuan proportions of the so-called “tarantula hawks” in the genera Pepsis and Hemipepsis. The largest females exceed two inches in body length. The standard appearance of these colorful insects is an iridescent blue-black body with bright orange wings, though some species have black wings with bluish reflections.

Thankfully, despite their size and high voltage sting, the females are generally placid, not easily aroused as they seek nectar at flowers. Milkweed is decidedly their favorite source of nectar, but I have also seen them on blooming creosote bush (as this female Pepsis chrysothemis demonstrates), blue palo verde, eucalyptus, and various mesquites and acacias. Females will also drink water at the edges of puddles and ponds.

Males are often more numerous at nectar sources than the females, and are recognized by slimmer bodies, longer antennae, and long, flattened hind legs. The males can also gather in multi-species “bachelor parties” during the hottest hours of the day, and also overnight and during inclement weather. They gather on certain trees in large, loose clusters. The odd female may join them, though mating does not seem to take place at such congregations. The males of at least some species perform a behavior called “hill-topping,” whereby they perch on trees at the highest point in the surrounding landscape, the better to spot and intercept passing females as they fly below.

Once mated, the females go about the business of earning their name. They search feverishly on foot, with flickering wings and quivering antennae, for the burrow of a tarantula spider. This behavior frequently takes place in the cooler morning, evening, or overnight hours, and is not often observed.

An occupied burrow discovered by the wasp usually results in the spider chasing the wasp back aboveground, and the battle is on. Initially it is a series of strategic maneuvers, each animal well aware of the agility and weapons the opponent possesses. Most of the time the female wasp manages to eventually sting the spider on its underside, striking a nerve center that renders the hairy arachnid paralyzed. She then sets about dragging the helpless victim to the nearest underground cavity, often choosing the spider’s own burrow. The tarantula hawk then lays a single egg on the still-living but comatose spider. The larva that hatches will then consume the spider as it grows ever larger during the long feast. The grub eventually pupates, and emerges as an adult wasp months later. Given the abundance of the wasps, there must be a very large tarantula population in the Sonoran Desert.

Tarantula hawks are diverse, too. I have personally collected seven species in Tucson alone: Hemipepsis ustulata, Pepsis grossa, P. chrysothemis, P. mexicana, P. thisbe, P. cerberus, and P. mildei.

My good friend Justin Schmidt, an outstanding research scientist, ranks tarantula hawks near the top of his “sting scale,” but has learned something very interesting. He concludes, both from personal experience and chemical analysis, that the venom of these wasps causes excruciating, short-term pain in humans (and likely other mammals), but does virtually no damage to tissues, nerves, or any bodily functions. You are in utter agony for about three minutes, and then you generally can resume normal activity.

Personally, I think it pays to heed the bright aposematic (“warning”) colors of these wasps, and to let them be. I’ve also learned that, once in my net, the wasps adopt a threatening posture with wings flared and abdomen curled, while liberating a distinctive fragrance at the same time.

My own fascination with these wasps only continues to grow, and I encourage everyone who encounters tarantula hawks to react calmly and enjoy watching them live out their lives. After all, few insects are so large and colorful.


  1. Another great post, Eric. I was just reading up on tarantula hawks this week, so your words are very poignant to me. I've yet to see on in person, but you'd better bet that it's high on my "must photograph" list!


  2. I hear you! Took awhile for me to figure out where I could usually be "guaranteed" to see them here in town (on certain mesquite trees in April, May, and on eucalyptus flowers in late June, early July). Otherwise, the longer you spend afield (day after day), the more opportunities you have to spot them....I'm going to link your blog. Hadn't made the connection until you just now made it for me!

  3. I enjoy some of the cool Pepsis mimics, particularly longhorn beetles in the genus Tragidion.

  4. I just caught one of these trying to fly out of my office window. I caught it in a jar and took it outside- Besides being beautiful, this animal had a very strong smell of creosote!

  5. So cool! I see to get an abundance of Paper Wasps, but nothing as cool as these!


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