SPIDER WASPS & TARANTULA HAWKS (PEPSIS WASPS)
I learn today that this week is Insect Week (or, as it may prefer, The International Week for Insect Appreciation and Protection). I’m all for it. There are annual Days for almost any creature you can think of – Warthogs; Fruit Bats; Porcupine Fish, and so on. There are few whole Weeks devoted to an entire taxonomic class. Here is an insect I wrote about several years ago. It’s an aggressive-looking creature that I found in the coppice on South Abaco. I could only get a partial shot of the insect, and I wondered whether to try to reach it and get a more complete shot. Perhaps I could have, but very fortunately for for me (as I later found out) I didn’t touch it.
This creature turned out to be a Spider Wasp (aka Pepsis Wasp), of the Pompilidae family. The insect is familiarly known as a Tarantula Hawk, for reasons given in unsparing detail below. For it turns out that this creature would be the hardest bastard insect on Planet Bastard in the Galaxy Bastardium.
It’s lucky that I didn’t try to try to collect it to keep in a small box as a pet. Note, for start, the scary eating apparatus… and it’s not for nibbling leaves as I had thought, but chopping up small insects. 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 IN ACTION
These wasps are known in some countries as “horse-killers”. The Pepsis wasp is a sub-species, and is called Tarantula Hawk 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 that “The tarantula hawk is relatively docile and rarely stings without provocation” Now read on to see if it might be sensible to provoke one or not.
SCARY CRITTERS & LIVING LARDERS
(Trigger Warning: this is really rather gross)
SPIDER WASPS are ‘solitary’ insects that feed on ground spiders / tarantulas by stinging them to paralyse them, then eating them. In the most sinister way, the females also make use of spiders for breeding purposes. Hear this! They build a nest in a burrow, find a spider (a tarantula for choice), 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 (deftly evading Ripley), and tunnels out of the burrow…
Do NOT try this at home or more than 10 yards from a medical centre
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 apparently 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 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 awarded 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 – and the sting of the Warrior Wasp – is ranked higher, with a 4.0+ rating, vividly described as “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel”
LIGHT RELIEF AFTER THE PAIN
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. 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…)
UNDOUBTEDLY PAINFUL EXPERIENCE
ARGUABLY PAINFUL STING
Mr Gordon Sumner
Credits: Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour (1, 2, 7); TheCrotalusfreak (video clip) (3); astrobradley (4); mshandro (5); Paul Nylander (6)
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