The Tarantula Hawk Wasp is a common desert wasp of the Southwest, but it can be found anywhere the tarantula is found. As its name suggests, this wasp preys on tarantulas, in much the same way a hawk preys on rodents. Although the sting of this wasp is said to be the most painful of any insect found in North America, it is not aggressive and rarely stings. It is, in fact, much more dangerous to tarantulas—paralyzing them in order to feed them to their young—than to humans.
Appearance and Behavior
At up to 2 1/2 inches in length, it is one of the largest of wasps. 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.
The tarantula hawk flies low along the ground in search of spiders. It is most active during summer days but does not like extreme heat.
Adults feed on flower nectar, pollen, and the juice of berries and other fruits, but the larvae feed on tarantulas provided to them by their mother. To capture its prey, the female searches the ground for tarantulas. If the spider is found in its burrow, she will stroke its web, making the tarantula think it has captured prey. When the tarantula appears to claim its food, the wasp stings it. The female tarantula hawk then drags the paralyzed tarantula to her burrow, lays an egg on its body, then covers the burrow. When the egg hatches, the emerging larva feeds on the tarantula, eating it in about a month.
The Wasp's Sting
Only female Tarantula Hawk Wasps can sting, but its stinger is formidable: as long as 1/3 inch long. Males are harmless. The tarantula hawk rarely stings unless it is handled or disturbed. Because they tend to fly low and hunt along the ground for spiders, a person moving barefoot across a lawn without looking down could get stung by stepping on the wasp.
Tarantula Hawks 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.
These wasps are not aggressive or prone to stinging. Many pest experts recommend that people simply leave them alone and take preventive and exclusionary measures to keep the wasps from purposely or accidentally getting into your home or stinging someone. These measures include:
- Sealing all cracks, crevices, and gaps in the structure, especially in the foundation.
- Ensuring doors and windows are well-fitted and screens are in good repair.
- Keeping doors and windows shut.
- When eating or drinking outside, checking food and beverage containers before touching to ensure no wasps have been attracted to them or have landed on the food.
- When a wasp is encountered, do not make sudden rapid movements, but softly, quietly leave the area until it is gone.
If you do see a wasp around your home, it is important to correctly identify it before taking steps for control. It is vital not to disturb wasps and best to leave them alone. Because social wasps do build nests and form colonies, it is more critical to ensure their removal by a professional, who will have the self-protection equipment—as well as the chemicals and tools—to properly and safely rid your home of the problem.