Tarantula Hawk Wasp (Pepsis species)

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This page last updated on 10/02/2017
(Fig. 01)
Picture Notes: All of the pictures found here were taken along the Natural Arches Trail in the Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, Nevada. The picture in (Fig. 02) was taken by my hiking partner and friend Robert Croke.

(Fig. 02)

Description:  A Tarantula Hawk (Pepsis species) is a spider parasitic wasp that hunts tarantulas. One of the largest of wasps, the Tarantula Hawk Wasp can be up to 2 1/2-inches in length. It is metallic blue-black in color with blue-black or yellow-orange wings edged in black. It has black antennae and long, velvety black legs with hooked claws that can be seen in (Fig. 01). In addition to being strong, fast runners, it can fly low along the ground in search of spiders. Only females can sting – and its stinger can be as long as 1/3 inch. Males are harmless. The tarantula hawk rarely stings unless it is handled or disturbed. The sting of the female Taranula Hawk is considered to be one of the most painful insect stings in the world. Tarantula hawks are a species of spider wasp which are solitary wasps. This means that they tend to live alone, rather than in colonies. Many do not build nests at all, but instead, burrow into the soil or use natural cavities or the burrows of other insects or animals. Tarantula hawk species have been observed from as far north as Logan, Utah, in the United States, the deserts of the southwestern United States, and south as far as Argentina in South America. It is a common desert wasp of the Southwest but can be found anywhere the tarantula is found. It is most active during summer days – however, it does not like extreme heat.

Adults feed on flower nectar, pollen, and the juice of berries and other fruits. The she-wasp uses the tarantula spiders to feed its young. As for the tarantulas, well, they almost never escape. The sting paralyzes the spider nearly instantly, allowing the wasp to drag it into a pre-dug burrow or back to the tarantula’s own den. Here it drops the victim and lays a single egg on it, then leaves and seals the chamber behind it. The egg hatches into a larva, which starts eating the still-paralyzed spider, focusing on non-essential tissues to keep it alive for as long as possible—perhaps weeks. Still, the she-wasp has to be careful, because while she’s pretty darn big, the tarantula can be several times bigger than her. And although tarantulas may be harmless to humans, they have massive fangs that could do a number on the wasp. The wasp go in and actually get in underneath the tarantula and then flip it over, and then sting it. She’s usually looking for a chink in the tarantula’s armor, and that’s often at the joints in the legs.

(Fig. 03)