SPIDER WASPS & TARANTULA HAWKS: DON’T MESS WITH THESE GUYS


SPIDER WASPS  & TARANTULA HAWKS (PEPSIS WASPS)

I recently posted photos of an unknown aggressive-looking INSECT that I found in the coppice on Abaco. I could only get a partial shot of it, and I wondered whether to try to reach it and get a more complete shot. Perhaps I could have stroked its dear little back… or tickled its cute feelers… I received various ID suggestions, ranging from the entomologically broad hedge-bet “big black beetle” to a more precise “black praying mantis”. I contacted the BNT to see what they thought. I’m glad I did. It turns out that this creature would be the hardest bastard insect on Planet Bastard. It is a SPIDER WASP of the Pompilidae family, almost certainly a TARANTULA HAWK aka PEPSIS WASP. It’s fortunate that I didn’t try to pet it or keep it in a matchbox. Note, for start, the scary eating apparatus… and it’s not nibbling leaves as I had thought, but chopping up a small insect. The leg claws and barbs are for pinning down its prey. You would not believe how unpleasant these little buddies are –  and that’s before we even mention the sting… 

SPIDER WASPS

These wasps (family name Pompilidae) are known in some countries as “horse-killers”. There are many species around the world, with 6 subspecies, one of which being the Tarantula Hawk or Pepsis Wasp – so-called because it hunts tarantulas and uses them in a most ingenious and cruel way… NB The BNT have rightly pointed out that these insects are unaggressive to humans. If you leave them alone, they will spare you. I’ve also read “The tarantula hawk is relatively docile and rarely stings without provocation” Now read on to see if it’s worth provoking one

SCARY CRITTERS & LIVING LARDERS

SPIDER WASPS are ‘Solitary’ insects that feed on ground spiders/ tarantulas by stinging them to paralyse them, then eating them. The females also make use of spiders for breeding purposes. They build a nest in a burrow, find a spider, paralyse it with their sting, drag it to the nest and lay a single egg on its abdomen. Then they seal up the burrow. 

When the egg hatches the larva chews a hole on the spider’s abdomen and enters a living larder. It gradually eat its host as it grows. The spider’s vital organs are left till last, so that the spider stays alive as long as possible until the larva has reached full-size. After several weeks, the larva spins a cocoon and pupates (often over winter). Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, bursts Alien-like from the spider’s abdomen, and tunnels out of the burrow…

Credit: Paul Nylander http://bugman123.com

SPIDER WASPS: MORE FEARFUL FACTS

  • Their hunting improves with experience – the more spiders they eat, the quicker they find, attack & kill them
  • Males use ‘perch territories’ to scan for receptive females from a tall plant or other vantage point, a behaviour known as HILL-TOPPING
  • Adult wasps also feed on a variety of plants for nectar & pollen. They may become intoxicated on fermented fruit, which affects their ability to get around (I think we’ve all been there at some time…)
  • The female Pepsis gets her spider in two main ways: approaching a tarantula causing it to rear up defensively on its legs, thus exposing its abdomen to the sting or
  • She locates a tarantula’s burrow, using her sense of smell. She tricks the spider into emerging by tweaking the web at the burrow’s entrance or ‘intruding’ (see video below)
  • The wasp uses her long stinger to stab her prey. The poison rapidly paralyses the spider. She then drags it to her burrow, lays her egg onto the tarantula’s abdomen, seals the burrow and leaves. Job done
  • The hooked claws and barbs on the wasps’ long legs are weapons for grappling with victims
  • The stinger of a female tarantula hawk can be up to 7 mm (1/3 inch) long – and the sting is among the most painful insect stings in the world (see below)
  • Only the females sting (males may pretend to) because the stinger is linked to the ovipositor (egg-laying organ)
  • You can distinguish females from males by the curled antennae of the female. Mine was therefore female
  • The Pepsis wasp has (unsurprisingly) very few predators, though roadrunners and bullfrogs may tackle them

Here is a hypnotically fascinating 3-minute video of the life-or-death struggle

SPIDER WASP  -v-  TARANTULA 

THE STING

The sting of these wasps is among the most painful of any insect, though the most intense pain lasts on a few minutes. Entomologist Justin Schmidt bravely submitted himself to the stings of various insects and described this pain as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” 

Schmidt produced his SCHMIDT STING PAIN INDEX The pain scale, based on 78 species, runs from 0 to 4, with 4 given for the most intense pain. Spider Wasps of the species Pepsis – i.e. Tarantula Hawks - have a sting rating of 4.0, described as “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath” Only the bite of the Bullet Ant (not found on Abaco!) is ranked higher, with a 4.0+ rating, vividly described aspure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel”

(Thanks to Erik Carey (BNT), Shelley Cant (BNT) and Dr Paul Deluca for their ID help and interest)

LIGHT RELIEF

1. In 1989, New Mexico chose the Tarantula hawk wasp as the official state insect. The choice seems to have been left to schoolchildren and I’m guessing here (or gender-stereotyping) but I suspect it was the boys’ choice that won…

2. Tarantula Hawk is a “psychedelic progressive metal band” from San Diego, Ca. Their short discography includes their debut Tarantula Hawk (CD/LP, 1998); Burrow (Live CD, 2000, self-released); and Untitled. I’ll just check if… OMG!! you can even get these on iTunes… and (OMG!!!) Am@z@n. The cover of their debut provides the perfect ending for this post, vividly depicting the colour and texture of the swirling fiery pain you could experience (and I don’t really mean from listening to the music…) 

AN ARGUABLY PAINFUL STING

Mr Gordon Sumner

AN ENJOYABLE STING

STOP PRESS 2 or 3 weeks on, I find that this entire post has been translated into Portugese! It can be seen HERE. It’s quite weird to read it, and I am tempted when I have a moment to re-use Google to translate it back into English. The two-way online translation game often leads to amusing results…

Tarantula hawk + Tarantula (Wiki)

14 thoughts on “SPIDER WASPS & TARANTULA HAWKS: DON’T MESS WITH THESE GUYS

  1. LOL I just had to comment – I have been lurking around your blog the last couple of nights and reading your bird related posts in preparation to my upcoming trip to Treasure Cay. I am an avid birder and photographer and have been immensely enjoying all of your posts and admiring your knack for compelling nature story telling. However, it’s this ghastly wasp thing that has finally led me to come out of the shadows and comment!

    First of all, EEK, EEK,EEK!!! I have been going to TC for 30ish years and have never encountered one of these in our garden and hope I never will!! Nevertheless, what a fascinating creature but I doubt I would have normally spent much time reading about it had it not been for your signature blend of whimsical and informative commentary!
    Nor would I have been tempted to watch the video which (despite its Mutual of Omaha wild kingdom narration style that was the horror of my youth with limited television options!) was equally informative and compelling to watch :-) Kind of like a train wreck actually :-) I almost feel sorry for the spider. Are there actually tarantulas on Abaco ? I just read that they are only an invasive species to the Bahamas and not harmful to humans. Still, I hope they are invading another island and not ours :-)
    Sorry for this long message, so just one more thing: I am curious to know if your new Birds of the Bahamas book is available somewhere a little closer to TC? It sounds lovely and I would be interested in getting a copy while I am on the island.

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    • Thanks for this, Connie. Sorry the birds have kept you awake 2 nights in a row, but I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! As for the (EEK!indeed) pepsis wasp, there can’t be that many around. I’m only occasionally on the island, and I have only seen 2 at Delphi so far (and none elsewhere). There’s very little about them in relation to Abaco, and no reported stings – and I think you’d know if one got you… There aren’t ‘advisories’ for them at the airport yet. However I have to inform you that there are indeed tarantulas on Abaco as well – see near the end of this misc. critters page for one found at the Delphi Club http://rollingharbour.com/birds-etc/misc-wildlife/. But reassuringly no human fatality has been recorded – and in some parts of the world they are considered a delicacy! So return to TC with you courage intact – but keep an eye out just in case…
      The Delphi Club (where the books are stocked) is 1/2 south of MH. People are in and out of MH so that makes for an easy drop. However, I’m sure we can get one up to TC. When are you going? You must for example know Woody Bracey (who features in the book) – he comes down our way from time to time. We’ll work something out. Email me when you are in TC and I’ll sort something – rollingharbour.delphi@gmail.com All the best

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  2. I just had a run in with one of these things 2 days ago. I was washing my wifes car and it attacked me… In the end I won…. but damn it was aggressive. .

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  3. I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by this gorgeous-looking critter (brilliant metallic blue body, bright orange wings) with the horrid lifestyle. Having just seen one close up this morning (I live north of San Diego) what worries me is that it’s confidently stated that you can tell the females by their curled antennae……but the wasp in the video had straight ones. Eeek! Must remember not to mess with any of ‘em, no matter how uncurled the antennae……

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    • Maybe there are regional variations… and that the basic rule should be: don’t stroke the little darlings, except with a 3 foot stick! It was fun to research these, from having no idea what the insect I’d photographed might be to learning about the Pain Scale!! Thanks for calling in at Rolling Harbour. RH

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  4. I live in Las Vegas, NV and have seen more than my share of these fascinating, but terrifying critters. My neighbor’s tree is infested with them, so they make their way to my yard quite often to say hello, & I can’t help but think to get a good laugh when they see me freak out over their presence! They are quite amazing to watch. They look a lot like gigantic ants with butterfly wings. When they walk around in all their glory, standing tall on their extremely long legs, you can’t help but feel intimidated. Between scorpions and tarantula wasps, I don’t know which one is going to force me to move, or turn me into a basket case!

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    • Hi Kris, sorry to hear your life is so plagued… but do you know anyone who has actually been stung by one (you would definitely know if it was you!!). Do you have tarantulas as well to add into the scary mix? RH

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    • Whoops… guess I can kiss goodbye to my job with the Bahamas Tourist Board. Actually, I think the chance of you ever encountering one is roughly the same as being charged by a wild boar in the Forest of Dean. Oh. That’s quite high, actually. Well, let’s say Hindhead…

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  5. These little charmers have quite a life, don’t they? Especially the females… While the males pootle around nibbling small insects / pollen / fruit and can’t sting, the females are to be taken very seriously indeed (esp. by tarantulas!). Any human parallels here? Hmmmmmm. RH

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