Tarantula Hawk

Tarantulas… big ugly bitey buggers… not ideal babysitting material in anyone’s book. Oddly the extraordinary tarantula hawk likes to leave junior with these evil sods… still she does take the precaution of paralyzing him first… a bit like leaving sherry with the nanny.


Tarantula hawks are actually a type of wasp. A bally big wasp as you’d expect. They also possess an incredibly powerful sting, second in power only to the bullet ant. The tarantula hawk’s sting is described by our old mate Schmidt as “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.” Which sounds like one to be avoided.

The tarantula hawk sniffs out the tarantula, even going as far to head into their lair. Where it somehow entrances the big bloody spider. No one is really sure how this happens, the research being a tad thin on the ground. Most zoologists, being human, tend to avoid having to handle them and will go to great lengths to avoid publishing papers on ‘How the Stingiest Stinger you couldn’t even imagine interacts with the Spider from Hades’ presumably preferring to write papers on ‘Who prefers snuggles most? Penguins, Otters or Puppies” Though it is probably that this flying assassin is using some sort of pheromone.

and that's the story of the 'owl and the pussycat'... now sleep tight little Jessica

and that's the story of the 'owl and the pussycat'... now sleep tight little Jessica

The wasp then crawls over the tarantula checking he’s exactly the right species, when she’s sure he’s the right one she delivers a potent neurotoxin, drags it to the bottom of its burrow, lays a single egg and seals up the burrow with the spider. Eventually the larva hatches and sticks its mouth into the living tarantula’s abdomen to suck the spider dry. When the squidgy bits are gone, the rapidly growing larvae moves on to the paralysed spiders fresh essential organs. The spider of course dies, as it really could have quite done with those essential organs to live, which is why they were so bloody well essential in the first place. With the buffet slayed the wasp larvae builds a cocoon to metamorphose. To change into another tarantula bothering machine. Smashing stuff!

Published in: on July 20, 2009 at 3:44 pm  Comments (11)  

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  1. It was just this sort of waspy churlishness (the ichneumonoidea, to be precise) that led Mr Darwin, whom you may know, to decide that perhaps the universe hadn’t, in fact, been designed by a kindly old gent who loves his creation.

    • Aye good knowledge Sir, and a lover of beers, I like the cut of your jib!
      It was a type of wasp that attacks caterpillars I do believe, though instead of paralyzing them the eggs were laid inside the caterpillar, which would then give of a chemical that would make them eat and eat and eat. All the time the eggs inside would grow until one day POP! out of the still living caterpillar comes thousands of baby wasps. Questioning Darwin why God would make such a horrible beast.
      Though I have to say he can’t have been that familiar with the spiteful, jealous, wrathful bugger of the old testament!

  2. I’m not sure the wasp is checking for “the right species.” They are optimized for immobilizing tarantulas and take whatever species are indigenous to the area. I pretty sure the antennation is to make sure the spider hasn’t been previously parasitized, as this would jeopardize the wasp larva. Other parasitoids such the Ichneumonidae perform this antennation and reject the previously parasitized. Notice how on insects the antennae is attached to the forehead, where it can feed information directly to the brain.

    • Interesting stuff! Though not the info I have, have you got a source? Would love to read it, and it certainly sounds plausible. It even sounds a lot more plausible than this being the time to check what species it is. Are you aware of the studies where several species of Pompilidae were placed in a tank with various species of Tarantula? The Pompilidae didn’t parasitize the Tarantula that wasn’t their usual host, and several indifferent wasps were in fact killed by the spiders.

      • Pilkington;
        Please lead me to that article about the experiment concerning the indifference of tarantula hawks when presented a plethora of targets. I arrived at my conclusion because I’ve never heard of Tarantula hawks in the field rejecting possible hosts because upon examination they proved to be the ‘wrong’ species. That, added to the fact that a previously parasitized host was hardly a beneficial environment to the wasp larva. I am prepared to be edified, though.

  3. The only reference on the article I got it from is;
    Costa, Perez-Miles, Migone
    Pompilid wasp interactions with burrowing tarantulas. Studies on Neotropical Fauna and Environment 39, (2004) 37-43
    If you do manage to get a copy I’d love to hear what it says

  4. Here is the rest of the header for that article: Pepsis cupripennis versus Eupalaestrus weijenberghi and Acanthoscurria suina (Araneae, Theraphosidae). So here one spider is attacking tarantulas of two genera. And host-specificity and host preference are two different things.
    Also, I question inferences that the wasp releases pheromones that inhibit the spider’s agression. I believe the spider instinctively fears closing with such a well-armed and agile opponent shielded within a hard, rounded integument. If the spider doesn’t recognize a mortal enemy, then why the threat posture? Which incidentally, the wasp exploits as an opportunity to slide underneath the spider. Game over. BTW, check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFKQaU25puI Cheers!

  5. Great video!

    I couldn’t tell you if the paper is about host preference or specificity as I haven’t read the paper and the title only uses the word ‘interactions’.

    Though at a guess the paper will have some information or at least some references for further reading about interactions between other species.

    On the use of pheromones by a Tarantula Hawk I can only say I go with what I read from trusted sources.

    The video is magnificent though and it really does look rather ‘close’ in a fight like scenario, and indeed the eight legged bugger certainly doesn’t look drugged!

    Though I would say that there are about 5,000 species of Pompilidae (Spider Wasps), and who knows how many different types of prey, and how many interactions between each wasp and prey there are. In all it’s probably safe to say that there are a number of methods the wasps employ to get that Spider shuffling off his mortal coil.

    Cheers old bean!

  6. All excellent points. What is doubly amazing is that they seem to have no natural predators, as entomologists like Justin O. Schmidt have yet to discover significant Pepsis remains in the stomach contents of predators that share its habitat. If you’re a fan of the Parasitica as I am, perhaps you might find the following link interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Df_iGe_JSzI
    Bon Appetit!

  7. Interesting!
    I have heard that road runners will take the odd one.
    Let’s face it would you eat one? Tell you what you all start and I’ll join you in a mo’.
    Gruesome video!
    Cheers for stopping by old bean!

  8. 1) I love your articles!

    2) The pictures in this made me leap out of my chair. Twice. I’m not kidding. After the second one, with the spider on the girl’s face, I actually had to walk away and compose myself. I bet you’re laughing right now.

    3) I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and as a kid out in the desert, hunting for “horny toads” (which really do squirt blood out of their eyes — I haven’t seen if you’ve covered them yet, here) these giant orange-winged wasps flew by every once in a while, scaring the piss out of me — especially since they sounded like a WWI biplane cruising past. Seriously, they sound like they’re gasoline powered.

    Anyway, great article, and am very much looking forward to reading the rest!

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