Tarantula hawk wasps are known for their painful stings, but you may be surprised to learn that unlike many other species of wasps, they rarely sting humans—and they usually live alone rather than in colonies. The insect's common name, "tarantula hawk wasp" of the genera Pepsis and Hemipepsis, is related to its danger to tarantulas. These wasps paralyze the spiders to feed them to their young. Although the tarantula hawk wasp's sting is said to be the most painful of any insect found in North America, it is not aggressive to humans. The pain from the sting lasts an excruciating five minutes, but it is not dangerous unless you develop an allergic reaction.
The tarantula hawk wasp is most active during the hot summer months, flying very low to the ground to search for prey. This species feeds on nectar, pollen, and fruit. Tarantulas and other large spiders are only a food source for their brood. Most experts recommend that these wasps be left alone, as they don't cause damage and only sting when seriously provoked. Even though they are not aggressive, a female may defend her burrow if threatened; only females will sting. If you spot tarantula hawk wasps near your home, you can get rid of these insects and take preventative measures to keep them away from the house.
What Are Tarantula Hawk Wasps?
Tarantula hawk wasps are large, black desert wasps native to many countries including the southern United States. This species is solitary in nature and prey on spiders like tarantulas.
What Do Tarantula Hawk Wasps Look Like?
Around 2 inches in length, the tarantula hawk wasp is metallic blue-black. It can have similarly colored wings or yellow-orange wings edged in black. Males have straight antennae, while females usually have curly antennae. These wasps have long, velvety black legs with hooked claws.
The veining in the wings is a distinctive characteristic of Pepsis, which is a helpful way to tell Pepsis and Hemipepsis apart.
Signs of Tarantula Hawk Wasps
If your area is known for having wild tarantulas, then tarantula hawk wasps are likely nearby as well. This species uses tarantulas and other large spiders to serve as incubators for their offspring.
Since tarantula hawk wasps are solitary, they aren't seen in swarms like social wasps. However, another sign that they may affect your home is if you have their favorite foods readily available. As adults, they eat flower nectar and juice from fruit and berries. They favor the nectar of milkweeds, soapberry trees, and mesquite trees.
These wasps tend to fly low and hunt along the ground for spiders. They are most active in the summer and during the day, though they tend to go dormant during the extreme heat of mid-day. Stings usually occur accidentally when a person brushes against an insect or steps on it, so it's important to be proactive when spending time outdoors during these times.
The wasp might also be recognized by the distinct airborne odor it releases. This unique odor is easily detected by humans, especially when the wasp is captured or threatened, according to Alexander Petrunkevitch, an eminent arachnologist at Yale University. The scent is pungent—not harsh—but serves as a repellant.
3 Ways to Get Rid of Tarantula Hawk Wasps
Although it's recommended to leave tarantula hawk wasps alone, you can still attempt to get rid of them on your own. The methods are similar to removing other types of wasps.
Destroy the Nest Using Insecticide Powder (Most Effective)
The best method of removing tarantula hawk wasps near your home is to destroy the insect's nest. During the day, identify where the nest is. Tarantula hawk wasps create burrows. This will appear as a small hole in the ground, about 1 to 2 inches across. They often use the natural cavities in rocks and trees, and they can also steal burrows from other insects or small animals. A constant presence of tarantula hawk wasps indicates an abundant food supply (or that a female has found a place to lay her eggs).
Return at night when the wasps are least active. Use a carbaryl-based insecticide powder, putting it down inside the burrow's entrance. Cover the nest up with moist soil. Alternatively, you can use gasoline. Pour it down into the hole, then quickly cover the opening with a wet towel. The insecticide or gasoline fumes will kill the wasps. Wait two days before digging out the nest and disposing of it.
Create a DIY Trap
Another way to combat tarantula hawk wasps is to trap the wasp itself. This method is the fastest because these insects live alone, so capturing the wasp should solve the problem (unless your home is attracting additional wasps).
Here's how to make a homemade wasp trap for an organic, non-insecticide alternative:
- Cut the top off of a 2-liter bottle.
- Fill the trap with soda halfway to the bottle's opening and add a few drops of dish soap.
- Turn the top upside down without the cap, then place it inside the other half of the bottle to form a funnel. Wasps have an acute sense of smell and are attracted to citrus sodas like orange-flavored soda, lemon-lime soda, or brand names like Mountain Dew.
- Place the trap near the nest and watch as wasps go down the funnel, drink the soda, then drown. The soap reduces the surface tension of the water, catching each wasp's legs and pulling it into the liquid.
Encourage Natural Predators of Tarantula Hawk Wasps
Due to their extremely large stingers, tarantula hawk wasps have very few predators. Only roadrunners and bullfrogs will take them on. If you have roadrunners or bullfrogs on your property, you have a predator on your side. However, roadrunners tend to be aggressive birds. Bullfrogs are mostly found near water habitats, rarely venturing far into the dry, desert terrain that these wasps are often found in. If you live near water, you can encourage local bullfrog populations to reside closer to your home with a pond that includes plenty of vegetation.
What Causes Tarantula Hawk Wasps?
Tarantula hawk wasps can be present wherever tarantula spiders are found and wherever the wasps can find their favorite foods. The following are possible causes of tarantula hawk wasps near your home:
- Spiders: If you have a tarantula hawk wasp problem, you likely have a spider problem in the house as well. You may want to do some landscape grooming. Like spiders, these wasps favor rocky areas, sandy terrain, and naturalized landscapes. They are less likely to be found in cultivated lawns and gardens. Remove spider enticements like rock crevices, yard debris, long grass, and untrimmed bushes. Bushes should have a clearing of 6 to 12 inches off of the ground, and overgrowth should be pruned. Repair or remove water sources outside, and consider creating a garden of plants that repel spiders.
- Sugary foods and drinks: When you are eating or drinking outside, be aware that sugary, sweet foods attract wasps. If you have a known wasp problem, refrain from eating sweet foods outside. Also, check food and beverage containers before bringing them to your mouth; a hungry wasp won't think twice about feasting on your food, and unattended bottles or containers may have these insects inside.
How to Prevent Tarantula Hawk Wasps From Entering Your Home
Tarantula hawk wasps have been known to seek cool indoor spaces during the heat of summer days. It's a good idea to seal all cracks, crevices, and gaps in your home's structure (especially in the foundation). Ensure that your doors and windows are well-fitted and screens are in good repair. Keep doors and windows shut, especially during the hottest part of the day. These ground-hunting wasps can easily be stepped on if you walk across a lawn or other terrain with bare feet, so it's also smart to wear shoes in your yard and other areas where tarantulas or their predator wasps are present.
Tarantula Hawk Wasp vs. Asian Giant Hornet
Tarantula hawk wasps and Asian giant hornets are both large species of insects, and their similar appearance can lead to confusion. However, tarantula hawk wasps are often larger despite most hornets being larger than wasps. These wasps can also be identified by their blue-black colored bodies in contrast to the Asian giant hornet's orange and black striped body.
2 inches in length
Blue-black or yellow-orange wings edged in black
Orange and black striped body
When to Call a Professional to Treat a Tarantula Hawk Wasp Infestation
You won't likely need to call a professional exterminator for one tarantula hawk wasp incident. If you have a sighting, it's probably an isolated event.
However, if you have a tarantula infestation inside your home, these wasps may become a problem. If tarantulas are finding cracks and crevices to get into your home, a wasp can as well. During summer and fall, tarantulas get into homes by slipping through open doors, torn window and door screens, window wells, gutters, cracks in home siding, or underneath the home's crawl space. They also dig burrows in the soil near homes and can slip through foundation cracks to enter basements or crawl spaces. Homeowners with ant or beetle problems are most likely to have tarantulas near the home, as these are convenient food sources for the spiders.
Licensed pest professionals have access to better tools and products than the typical homeowner, can identify spider types, and discover if wasps and tarantulas are secondary to another insect infestation.
Are tarantula hawk wasps aggressive?
Tarantula hawk wasps don't tend to be aggressive toward humans. These wasps may sting humans when stepped on, brushed up against, or when female wasps are defending their nests.
Where do tarantula hawk wasps live?
In the United States, tarantula hawk wasps live in southern regions and are most commonly found in southwestern deserts. Around the globe, these wasps are native to desert regions on all continents excluding Europe and Antarctica.
Will tarantula hawk wasps go away on their own?
Tarantula hawk wasps are drawn to large spiders like tarantulas, so if your home has been infested by these spiders, the wasps may continue to reside nearby. However, tarantula hawk wasps are solitary and don't usually stay in areas without tarantulas or food sources (including sweet foods and drinks like fruits or sodas).
The Most Painful Wasp Sting in the World Explained. Natural History Museum.
Biting, Stinging and Venomous Pests: Insects. University of Arizona.
Petrunkevitch, Alexander. “The Spider and the Wasp.” Scientific American, vol. 187, no. 2, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1952, pp. 20–23, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24950748.