Monster of the Week: Tarantula Hawk

A large wasp sips nectar peacefully.

This week’s monster is a little different. Normally, I would write about a legend or an enemy from a video game or movie — fiction.

The tarantula hawk isn’t like any of them.

The tarantula hawk is real.

So if creepy crawlies make you squirm — if the greatest consolation in the movie theater is the reminder that it’s just special effects — well, you’ve been warned.

So — what the hell is a tarantula hawk?

The keen-eyed among you may have already noticed that the creature pictured above is neither a tarantula nor a hawk. At times like this we have to admit that, as a species, sometimes we just suck at naming things. Tarantula hawks are actually wasps.

The arachnophobes in the back just breathed a sigh of relief.

(Just wait.)

There are a variety of wasp species that are called tarantula hawks — more generally, they’re called spider wasps and categorized under the family Pompilidae. They are called spider wasps not because they look like spiders, act like spiders, or like to pal around with spiders. They are called spider wasps because they hunt spiders.

To be specific, tarantula hawks are spider hawks that hunt tarantulas.

Yes, arachnophobes — and I include myself in that group — there is an insect that literally eats your greatest fear for breakfast.

It’s okay. I know what you’re thinking:

How can I get as far away from this as possible?

Well, your options are pretty much 1) Europe, or 2) Antarctica. That’s right: spider wasps have been found in Asia, North America, South America, Australia, and Africa. In the United States, they are mostly confined to the southwest, where New Mexico has named the tarantula hawk their state insect, most likely out of fear.

Okay, so there are spider wasps all over the globe. But surely they can’t be that bad?

I’ll let you be the judge. Let’s get back to that hunting and devouring tarantulas thing, because I’ve only just scratched the surface.

Tarantula hawks are pretty large as far as wasps go — up to around two inches long — but they’re still smaller than tarantulas, so you might think they would be at a disadvantage. You would be wrong.

Let’s see how it goes down on this educational video, complete with 1940s b-movie soundtrack:

In short: these nasty buggers are strong, nimble, and down for a knock-down drag-out wrestling match that would make Mike Tyson think twice. Female tarantula hawks, who do the hunting, also have a powerful advantage — a sting so agonizing that it has been ranked the second most painful insect sting in the world.

Don’t believe me? Check out the article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal which advises anyone stung by a tarantula hawk to “just lie down and start screaming.”

But even this is not the most terrifying thing about the tarantula hawk.

Before I mentioned that they hunt and devour tarantulas. That’s not exactly true — at least, not in that order.

Adult female wasps hunt tarantulas. Once they’ve cornered one and injected it with their incredibly potent venom, the spider remains paralyzed for the rest of its too-long life. The tarantula hawk drags the spider into a burrow, lays an egg on its still-living body, and barricades the spider inside.

When the egg hatches, the wasp larva eats the tarantula alive.

It does this slowly. From the inside out. In a very deliberate way: least important parts first, saving the critical organs for last so that the tarantula will stay alive as long as possible. This keeps the meat fresh.

When the young wasp has finally finished off its meal and allowed the tortured spider to feel the sweet relief of death, it digs its way back out of the burrow. It’s now grown enough to support itself as an adult.

It spends the rest of its life feeding on nectar.

That’s right. Adult tarantula hawks are vegan.

If that’s not the most grotesquely ironic thing you’ve seen all day, then I really don’t want to know what kind of weird shit is in your google search history.

The fact that they drink nectar is, of course, not the most monstrous thing about tarantula hawks — that award clearly goes to their treatment of the poor spider. But isn’t it interesting how a little detail like that throws the rest of it into such sharp relief? The most appalling thing about a monster is its ability to seem innocent.

Or maybe it’s the fact that this is a real animal and you might see one on your upcoming southwestern vacation.

So, make sure you snap some pictures while you’re lying in the sand and screaming!

Do you know any real animals horrific enough to give the tarantula hawk a run for its money? Dare I even ask? I’m already dreading your comments!


2 Replies to “Monster of the Week: Tarantula Hawk

  1. Really fun and beautiful choice with the youtube video. The Anglerfish is my reigning champion of spooky animals, mostly for managing to be so alien in every respect.

  2. Great article! I remember as a 5th grader (I am now 64) camping in Mexico. My 4-H project was hunting insects. I caught this HUGE 3″ beautiful Tarantula Hawk in my net and put it in a “killing jar.” Four (4) days later, I mounted the dead insect. But wait, the next morning it was MOVING on the pin! Fearful of being stung, I remember my mother (the biologist in the family) grabbing a VERY long-handled needle-nose plyer and putting it back into the killing jar. We added more poison and waited 2 weeks before touching it again. These insects are TOUGH and meant to survive. Thanks for sharing their journey.

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