Tarantula Hawk Wasps (Pepsis formosa) of the Pompilidae family can grow to be between “0.94 to 2 inches” long. Their aposematic coloration, metallic blue-black bodies and orange wings, warns predators planning to attack to stay away! The adult wasps are generally quiescent, but females may sting enemies with their modified ovipositors. Whether or not a female will sting depends on the extent to which she feels threatened by the enemy. Many predators avoid this wasp because they do not want to experience what entomologist Justin O. Schmidt describes as “blinding, fierce, [and] shockingly electric” pain (1984 Pain Index). A sting is accompanied by the injection of a small dosage of venom which is enough to paralyze tarantulas, the primary victims of this wasp.
We will discuss the matter of a tarantula hawk’s basic behaviors further before proceeding to examine many prominent examples of its depiction in popular culture contexts. Possible reasons for this insect’s increasing influence on research and the video gaming industry will be included in the conclusion.
The behavior for the tarantula hawk is very unique. Based on the research done by Giraldo et. al, males and females start to be active around one and a half to two hours after sunrise. Many wasps come out of the nests and rest on the soil or grass. Both males and females leave the nest and fly for a short period of time. Males tend to have shorter flights and a longer resting period than females. Both males and females will fly towards vegetation nearby their nests in search of a meal. Feeding normally begins in the morning and lasts until noontime. Moreover, it was also found that the resting period for tarantula hawk wasps usually occurs when temperatures are high. During rainy days or under cold weather, the wasp’s activity level drastically increases.
Wasps within this genus are among some of the largest in North America! Although Pepsis wasps have many unique behaviors, we will focus mainly on their hunting and aggressive behaviors of in this section.
Female behaviors within Pepsis with regards to hunting are the most unique and interesting. It is important to note that unlike the female wasps who have mated, unfertilized females will not go out hunting for tarantulas. When the fertile female first locates a tarantula, she seizes it with her mandibles, flips the spider on its back, and then lays a single egg on its body. She then drags that spider, or in this case a shield for her eggs, into either the spider’s burrow or an empty wasp nest before searching for more spider prey to lay her eggs on.After the female finds a secure place for the tarantula host and deposits a single egg on it, she will seal the burrow. The larva that eventually hatches from this egg will carefully consume the paralyzed spider. Once the larva is finished eating around the spider’s vital organs, it weaves a silken cocoon for itself. Then, it will metamorphose into the pupal stage. Lastly, it will emerge as an adult wasp and starts its entire new life.
Although Tarantula Hawks are known for hunting and killing tarantulas, they are actually not very aggressive insects. Having said this, don’t go provoking them–they have one of the most painful stings of any insect! Such a powerful sting is fairly common in a solitary insect, one that is not a social insect and has to defend a hive or colony. This sting, however, is fairly non-lethal to humans and is thought to have evolved because Pepsis often are searching for food out in the open in fields, where they are vulnerable to attack by predators such as roadrunners. Furthermore, as with all true-stinging insects, only the female Pepsis can actually sting (although the males can fake a sting). Females can be identified by the curls at the end of their antennae (Bugguide) For the most part though, most predators will stay away from the tarantula hawk so the only time it will actually be aggressive is if it really feels threatened or if it is looking for a host to feed its babies. So don’t be afraid! These insects just have a bad reputation and if you don’t provoke them then you have little to worry about.
The tarantula hawk, while not commonly known by most, can actually be found in a surprising amount of places outside the entomological world. We will explore why this may be the case, and how such an unknown insect has stirred the imaginations of those who would not otherwise know about such a creature.
The most prominent “role” the tarantula hawk has played in the popular consciousness is as the state insect of New Mexico. This insect was chosen as the state insect through a popular vote of the students of New Mexico in 1988, out of three choices. It finished ahead of the yucca moth (Prodoxidae) and jerusalem cricket (Stenopelmatus). While most states have state insects, the fact that the tarantula hawk was chosen through a popularity contest is interesting. We do not know for sure what captured the imaginations of the students who voted for this insect, but by simply taking a look at the social media reaction (including Twitter search results) for “tarantula hawk” and considering their unique and strange behaviors, we can certainly guess at what made the tarantula hawk so appealing. First of all, the idea of parasitism seems to be one that captures many imaginations, as evidenced by its countless portrayals in popular culture, from Alien to Animorphs. Furthermore, the particularly intelligent and gruesome way in which the tarantula hawk consumes the predated tarantula seems to connote a sort of grim calculation, again a source of fascination, as seen in the variety of crime stories which are exceedingly popular in America. Indeed, most comments about the tarantula hawk on Twitter involve an amazement at the violence and seemingly horrific behavior of the insects! Even as elementary school students, American culture seems to be rife with such ideas, and these factors combined to make the tarantula hawk a much more interesting candidate for a state insect than the other insects, even though it has a rather violent lifestyle.
These dual fascinations of the tarantula hawk’s intelligence and curious lifecycle make it suitable for other cultural references. For instance, aerospace manufacturer Honeywell, a supplier for the US military, has named its hovering reconnaissance vehicle, the T-Hawk, after the tarantula hawk, citing similarities in their appearances. However, more than that, both the insect and vehicle act as “predators” of larger beings, as the insect preys on larger tarantulas, while the T-Hawk is able to conduct surveillance of enemy territories, clearly larger than itself. Hence, even in a military setting, the behavior of the tarantula hawk has excited imaginations.
Yet another reference occurs in one of the most popular mediums of our age, namely video games. In the 2010 video game Fallout: New Vegas, the player explores the wasteland which the world has become after a nuclear war. One of the enemies in this game is known as the Cazador, Spanish for hunter, which looks essentially like a large tarantula hawk. Indeed, the game’s lead designer confirmed the influence. In the game, the cazador flies aggressively at the character and can do much damage. This is clearly in reference to the tarantula hawk’s sting, which it uses to paralyze the tarantula. While this representation does not utilize the lifecycle of the tarantula hawk, it does reference its powerful sting, and out of all other insects which can sting, the developers of the game chose this one.
And in the End…
Through all of these examples, we can see that the tarantula hawk has many elements which make it especially interesting and relevant to humans. While it is not the only parasitic insect, nor the only stinging insect, the combination of these and other behaviors have made the insect stay in our minds, long after we are introduced to it. From these memories, various people, from students to aircraft engineers, have used it as inspiration for numerous purposes. Indeed, the tarantula hawk manages to be memorable and loved, in a way, through a remarkable combination of violent behaviors. It beats the odds, and proves that an insect need not be cute nor friendly in order to be loved; sometimes it’s enough to be specialized in a very different way.
The New Mexico State Symbols page: Find out more about New Mexico’s various state symbols!
The Santa Fe New Mexican from 03/21/1988: This issue features an article about the election of the tarantula hawk as the state insect.
“T-Hawk™ Micro Air Vehicle”: An informational article from Honeywell about the T-Hawk.
Experience Affects Hunting Behavior of the Wasp, Pepsis: A scholarly article from the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.
Temporal Activity Patterns of the Spider Wasp Pepsis montezuma Smith (Hymenoptera: Pompilidae) in a Disturbed Lower Montane Rainforest (Manizales, Colombia): A scholarly article from Psyche: A Journal of Entomology.
“Tarantula Hawk Wasp”: An account of the “habitat and habits” of the tarantula hawk.
“Tarantula Hawks Deliver the Big Sting”: An article from the Tucson Daily about the tarantula hawk.
- BugGuide’s Guide to tarantula hawks.