County Wildlife Corner: Tarantula Hawks

(July 22)  What might be considered a nightmarish creature, the tarantula hawk, inhabits the Mojave Desert.
These creatures prefer to eat their victims while they are still alive, consuming them from the inside out. What is more, they display the distinctly human trait of getting drunk.
Tarantula hawks are spider wasps which hunt tarantulas as food for their larvae. Tarantula hawks belong to any of the many species in the genera Pepsis and Hemipepsis in the family Pompilidae, known as spider wasps.
The more familiar species are up to two inches long, with blue-black bodies and bright, rust-colored wings. Some species have black wings with blue highlights. They are considered mong the largest of wasps. The vivid coloration found on the bodies, and especially wings, of these wasps is an aposematism, advertising to potential predators the wasps’ ability to deliver a powerful sting. Their long legs have hooked claws for grappling with their victims. The stinger of a female Pepsis grossa can be up to one third of an inch long, and the sting is considered the second most painful insect sting in the world.
The female tarantula hawk captures its prey by stinging it, which has the effect of paralyzing and rendering utterly helpless the hairy spiders. She will then either drag the still living tarantula back into her own burrow or transports it to a specially prepared nest, where a single egg is laid on the spider’s abdomen, and the entrance is covered.
When the wasp larva hatches, it creates a small hole in the spider’s abdomen, then enters and feeds voraciously, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive. After several weeks, the larva pupates. Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, and emerges from the spider’s abdomen to continue the life cycle. Ah, the beat goes on!
Tarantula wasps are nectarivorous. The consumption of fermented fruit can have the effect of intoxicating them to the point that flight becomes difficult. While the wasps tend to be most active in daytime summer months, they paradoxically tend to avoid high temperatures. Grown male and female tarantula hawks feed off the flowers of milkweeds, western soapberry trees, or mesquite trees.
Male tarantula hawks, unlike females, do not hunt for prey. They do, however, engage in what is called hill-topping, sitting atop tall plants and waiting for passing females ready to reproduce.
Females are not very aggressive, in that they are hesitant to sting, but the sting is extraordinarily painful.
Tarantula hawks are not limited to San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert. Rather, they range from India to Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas. In North America, tarantula hawk species have been observed from as far north as Washington state. Southerly, they have been observed as far below the equator as Argentina, with at least 250 species living in South America.
Several species of tarantula hawk are found in the deserts of the southwestern United States, with Pepsis grossa (formerly Pepsis formosa) and Pepsis thisbe being common. The two species are difficult to distinguish, but the majority of P. grossa have metallic blue bodies and reddish antennae, which separates them from P. thisbe. Both species have bright orange wings that become transparent near the tip.
The tarantula hawk is relatively docile and rarely stings without provocation. However, the sting, particularly of P. grossa, is among the most painful of any insect, though the intense pain only lasts about three minutes. Commenting on his own experience, Justin O. Schmidt, entomologist and creator of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, described the pain as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” In terms of scale, the wasp’s sting is rated near the top of the Schmidt index, second only to that of the bullet ant, and is described by Schmidt as “blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric.” Because of their extremely large stingers, very few animals are able to eat them; one of the few animals that can is the roadrunner. Many predatory animals avoid these wasps, and many different insects mimic them, including various other wasps and bees (Mullerian mimics), as well as moths, flies (e.g., mydas flies), and beetles (e.g., Tragidion) (Batesian mimics).
The trantula hawk is the state insect of New Mexico.

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