After a recent customer called inquiring about pest control services, we were inspired to take a trip down a rabbit-hole of bug research. This journey ended with a new contestant, and probable winner, in the category of “Most Interesting, Ridiculous and/or Disturbing Insect.”

This client mentioned how they liked tarantulas for their natural pest control benefits of preying on other insects. This then led to a discussion about the “Tarantula Hawk Wasp” — the star of our story.

Tarantula Hawk Wasp?

Greenland, mostly bug free
Greenland, mostly bug free

Yes, Tarantula Hawk Wasp. These winged wonders are so much fun that they needed to be named after three of nature’s best predators.

For those that aren’t familiar, we suggest finding a comfy place for some interesting reading, probably in an inside location if you are prone to get the heebie-jeebies.

And for those that are truly bug phobic, well you should probably stop reading here, and maybe move to Greenland.

So, What is a Tarantula Hawk Wasp?

Tarantula Hawk WaspBesides owning an incredible name worthy of a superhero movie franchise, the Tarantula Hawk is an insect that inhabits mostly tropic areas around the world, but with several species located in Southwest desert climates including Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. It is, in fact, New Mexico’s official state insect — the result of an elementary school nomination and voting process. Kids’ certainly know cool bugs when they see them.

Adding to its intimidating name, it is a large wasp, much bigger than your typical winged bug, and reaches sizes up to 2 inches long.

They have dozens of other fascinating characteristics, including the ability to choose the sex of their offspring and to emit a pungent but chemically unidentifiable odor that scientists speculate serves several functions: as a warning, a defense or even as mate attraction.

But most interesting is how they interact with their namesake food supply: the even more renowned tarantula spider.

Aren’t You Glad You’re Not a Tarantula?

Tarantula vs Tarantula Hawk Wasp
This is an unfair fight
Tarantulas are the unlucky target of the female wasp. They hunt for the large spiders, paralyze them and drag them to a burrow where they place their larvae on them that in turn use them as a long-lasting and plentiful food supply. The wasp is virtually unbeatable, so much so that tarantulas are seen to submit and give up when attacked. The wasp has a hard, smooth body and the spider’s efforts at biting often slide right off. When the wasp stings, the spider is paralyzed in about two seconds.

That one spider is then buried with the larvae and it nourishes the baby wasp from birth to adulthood. The little one will eat on the still-living tarantula over a course of 20 to 25 days. Note that it waits to eat the vital organs until last, which keeps the immobilized spider alive throughout the process. Yikes.

And you probably thought the movie Aliens was disturbing.

“Screaming is Satisfying”

The wasps are terrors to tarantulas, to be sure. But is there any major risk to people? Well, the sting isn’t particularly toxic or damaging to mammals—long-term anyway. And, like most insects, a Tarantula Hawk Wasp isn’t generally interested in people.

But, you may be thinking, I’m curious. Bugs are kinda neat. What happens if I find one on a walk around a ranch and reach out to grab it? Let’s clear this up real simple-like.

Don’t do that. Really. PLEASE. Do not do that.

In fact, it’s probably best to just nod politely and excuse yourself from the company of a Tarantula Hawk Wasp should y’all have a casual encounter somewhere. Maybe tell it that you just remembered you forgot to pick up your grocery order and, not to be rude, but you need to run away quickly in the opposite direction. Tell it that you sincerely hope it understands. Given the current pandemic, social distancing from this wasp is even more appropriate. Being polite and working on your quick getaway maneuvers can’t hurt either.

But should you really, really want to introduce yourself and touch one, read up first on what to do in order to handle the effects of a sting, from those who know…

Here’s what Justin O. Schmidt, a published hawk wasp researcher, suggests as your course of action after being stung:

“Lie down and scream.

“The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that the victim is at risk of further injury by tripping in a hole or over an object in the path and then falling onto a cactus or into a barbed-wire fence. Such is the sting pain that almost nobody can maintain normal coordination or cognitive control to prevent accidental injury. Screaming is satisfying and helps reduce attention to the pain of the sting.”

So yes, the expert advice when stung is not to seek aid, search for a medicine cabinet to apply some ointment or walk to your car. Nope. The good news is that the “treatment” is pretty easy to remember, composed of just two easy steps:

  1. Drop to the ground.
  2. Scream your head off.

Continue that last one there for a few minutes or so, presumably until you can recall what planet you live on, and then re-assess your situation. Get up, brush yourself off, let your friends and neighbors know everything’s all cool again and maybe go get a snow cone.

You’re probably all good at that point. No big deal. And now you have a nice story to tell next Thanksgiving.

Summary

Tarantula Hawk Wasps are freaky, bizarre insects that have no known predators or natural enemies, whose babies eat buffet-style on a paralyzed live tarantula over a three week period and and who possess a sting which creates an experience of nearly unfathomable physical discomfort best remedied by expelling all anguish, pain and air from your lungs for several minutes.

Greenland awaits.

Tarantula Hawk Wasp photo courtesy of National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/articles/tarantula-hawk.htm