What Is a Tarantula Hawk? 

tarantula hawk eating a big brown tarantula
Tarantula Hawk Classification
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Pompilidae
Genus: Pepsis and Hemipepsis
Species: Many

A tarantula hawk is one of the largest wasps on the planet, reaching up to two inches in length. 

Tarantula hawks are wasps belonging to two genera, Pepsis and Hemipepsis. These genera are part of the Pompilidae family, which is Hymenoptera. All Hymenoptera are insects.[1]

While tarantula hawks are not harmful to humans, their stings are extremely painful and deter nearly all predators from eating or harming them. Roadrunners are the only animals that consume tarantula hawks.

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    Why Are They Called Tarantula Hawks?

    ‘Tarantula hawks’ are named after their feeding habits, in which they sting tarantulas in order to paralyze them and feed them to their young. 

    The tarantula hawk flies around searching for its prey much like a hawk does, giving them the second part of their name. 

    Their scientific names are varied because there are many species of tarantula hawk. However, the word pepsis is Ancient Greek for “cooking” or “digesting,” which could refer to the way in which Tarantula hawks hunt and consume spiders for their young. 

    Are Tarantula Hawks Dangerous?

    Even though tarantula hawk stings are not harmful to humans, they are regarded as one of the most painful insect stings in the world. In spite of the fact that the tarantula hawk sting does not cause death in humans, it should always be avoided due to the pain that it causes.

    The tarantula hawk does not sting often and only stings when threatened, so it is relatively easy to avoid being stung by one. As a result, they do not pose a significant threat to humans. By leaving tarantula hawks alone and not bothering them, one can avoid being stung. 

    Where Can Tarantula Hawks Be Found?

    There are many locations throughout the world where tarantula hawks can be found, including the United States, Australia, India, Africa, and Europe. There are tarantula hawks almost anywhere tarantulas can be found for prey. 

    There are 21 species of tarantula hawks in the United States and at least 250 in South America.

    Pepsis grossa, a species of tarantula hawk, is even the state insect of New Mexico. It was decided by elementary school students that the tarantula hawk would represent New Mexico as the state insect. 

    How to Identify a Tarantula Hawk?

    The tarantula hawk can be identified by its large size, reaching up to two inches in length, as well as its reddish-brown wings and dark, almost blue bodies. In some species of tarantula hawk, the wings are black with blue highlights. 

    It is common for tarantula hawks to have four distinct wings, although they can appear to have just two wings if the wings on each side are folded up or close together. 

    In addition to their enormous size, tarantula hawks are also easily recognized by their long legs and antennae. For the purpose of tackling and fighting with their prey, tarantula hawk legs possess hook-like claws at the ends. 

    tarantula hawk specimen preserved in collection
    The tarantula hawk is deemed to have one of the most painful stings and is commonly referred to as the second most painful animal to be stung by, beaten only by the bullet ant

    Female tarantula hawks have stingers that measure up to seven millimeters in length, and their stings are among the most painful in the world. Male tarantula hawks hold their antennae out more straight, while females curl them up at the end.

    Many of the tarantula hawk species look quite similar to each other, making it difficult to distinguish them from one another. 

    Where Do Tarantula Hawks Live?

    Tarantula hawks live in deserts and open areas, burrowing into the ground. Since tarantulas are their preferred food source, tarantula hawks prefer to live in areas where tarantulas are abundant. 

    A tarantula hawk also enjoys areas with abundant flowers, particularly milkweed, from which to drink pollen.

    Female tarantula hawks build their nests in the dirt and dig burrows where they lay their eggs and drag their prey. Due to the fact that the wasps must be able to bring their tarantula prey into the nests, the nest entrances are fairly large.

    What Do Tarantula Hawks Eat?

    Both male and female adult tarantula hawks feed on milkweed plants, mesquite trees, and Western soapberry trees. Both sexes of tarantula hawks eat nectar from these plants, and can become intoxicated if they consume fermented fruit nectar. 

    The female tarantula hawk also hunts tarantulas for the purpose of providing food for its young. Female tarantula hawks sting tarantulas between their legs, causing them to become paralyzed. 

    The tarantula hawk then carries the tarantulas to their nests and bury them in the burrows that they dig in the ground. Once the tarantulas have been buried in their nests, one egg is laid on each tarantula and sealed with dirt. 

    Large tarantula hawk pollinating flowers
    Tarantula hawks are frequently observed eating fruit and will sometimes eat fermented fruit which can lead to disorientation and poor flight

    As soon as the tarantula hawk egg hatches, it burrows into the tarantula’s abdomen and feeds there. To ensure that they continue to receive fresh food, the wasp larvae instinctively avoid eating the spider’s vital organs so that it can stay alive for as long as possible. 

    In a few weeks, the tarantula hawk larva pupates inside the abdomen of the tarantula. Once it has pupated, it emerges as an adult wasp from the abdomen of the tarantula. 

    Do Tarantula Hawks Pollinate?

    A tarantula hawk does pollinate because it feeds on nectar from flowers like milkweed and the pollen sticks to its body when it lands. When tarantula hawks fly between flowers, pollen is transferred to other flowers. 

    Pollination occurs when insects, such as the tarantula hawk, move pollen from one plant to another, typically by flying from one plant to another. Flowers and plants benefit from this process, as cross-pollinating plants cannot reproduce without pollinators such as bees and wasps.

    In spite of this, tarantula hawks are not as important as pollinators who carry pollen baskets, such as honeybees[2].

    Do Tarantula Hawks Make Honey?

    As solitary insects, tarantula hawks do not make honey. Instead, tarantula hawks feed their young on live, paralyzed tarantulas.

    Unlike honey bees, solitary bees and wasps, such as the tarantula hawk, do not produce honey to feed their young. They instead feed their larvae on pollen, nectar, or other insects and sources of protein. 

    Additionally, tarantula hawks are generally less aggressive than honey bees. A honey bee is aggressive because it has a large amount of honey to protect as a food source, whereas a solitary wasp such as a tarantula hawk does not have any food sources to protect.

    Do Tarantula Hawks Sting?

    Tarantula hawk females do sting, and their stings are extremely painful. In spite of this, female tarantula hawks are not aggressive and will not sting without provocation. In addition, the pain caused by the sting only lasts for about five minutes, so while it is excruciating, it is short-lived. 

    The best way to avoid being stung by a tarantula hawk is to avoid the wasps themselves and leave them alone to do their work. There should be no interference with the wasps’ foraging or mating activities, and they should be given an adequate amount of space otherwise they may sting. 

    Why Are Tarantula Hawk Stings So Painful?

    During an attack, tarantula hawks inject venom into humans or their spider prey via their stinger (which can be as long as seven millimeters!). 

    Tarantula hawk stings are among the most painful insect stings. Entomologist Justin O. Schmidt created a pain index called the Schmidt Pain Index that catalogs various insect stings by the level of pain that they create. 

    Insect sting pain is rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing excruciating pain and one representing no pain at all. Schmidt has been stung by more than one hundred and fifty different species in his lifetime, which he logged on his pain index. 

    tarantula hawk paralysing a tarantula
    “Tarantula hawk venom is an enormous bluff, a biological deceit of major order. The pain speaks loudly, but no club follows.” – J. O. Schmidt

    A tarantula hawk sting ranks at a four on the Schmidt Pain Index, making it one of the most painful insect stings in the world. It is second only to the Bullet Ant, which ranks off the charts on the Schmidt Pain Index. [4]

    It is important to note that tarantula hawks rarely sting humans. They only sting if they feel threatened, so it is fairly easy not to be harmed. 

    Tarantula Hawk vs. Paper Wasp

    Tarantula Hawk Paper Wasp
    Appearance Dark blueish black, not very metallic. Four distinct reddish-brown wings and no markings or stripes on the body. Some species have blueish black wings as well as bodies. Brownish black, up to one inch long, yellow legs, red wings, and yellow stripes on the abdomen and thorax.[3]
    Stinging Non-aggressive but incredibly painful stings. 4.0 on the Schmidt Pain Index. Non-aggressive but painful stings. 3.0 on the Schmidt Pain Index.
    Honey Does not produce honey. Does not produce honey.
    Reproduction Individual female wasps lay eggs in their own specific nests in the ground. One queen lays all of the eggs for the colony, fertilized by drones.
    Diet Adult tarantula hawks feed on nectar from flowers, while young are fed paralyzed tarantulas. Adults and larvae eat caterpillars, nectar, insect larvae, and flies.
    Nest Burrows into the ground and digs out a nest with several brood chambers. Sometimes also lays eggs in the tarantula’s own burrow, leaving them to develop there. Constructs nest out of fibers collected from dead wood and plant stems mixed with saliva. Lives communally in one nest with many other wasps.

    Reproduction & Lifecycle of a Tarantula Hawk

    The male tarantula hawk often perches on top of tall plants and waits for female wasps to pass by in order to mate. It is possible for male tarantula hawks to be territorial of their chosen spot for waiting for females, but they do not sting, and therefore are not a threat to humans. 

    Following mating, female tarantula hawks begin searching for tarantula prey. It is possible for female tarantula hawks to find tarantulas in the open while scavenging for food, or sometimes the wasps will enter the burrows of tarantulas and drive them out. 

    As soon as the tarantula hawk has the tarantulas out in the open, the wasp will sting the tarantula once or twice to paralyze it, and either drag it back to its burrow or take it to the nest. An egg is laid on the tarantula’s body by the female wasp, which then closes up the hole to prevent intruders from entering the nest. 

    In a few days, the tarantula hawk egg hatches and begins to feed on the still-living tarantula. First, it consumes the tarantula’s haemolymph, which is equivalent to blood, and then it consumes its flesh. 

    A tarantula hawk larva goes through several stages within its abdomen before pupating and becoming an adult. 

    Once the adult wasps emerge, they mate again and start the cycle anew.


    [1] Wikipedia [2] Desert USA [3] NHM

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