The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Tarantula Hawk
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, March 29, 2003, © 2004

Squeamish Alert: Readers who have delicate systems may wish to stop now.

Tarantula Hawks will never be recorded on the Valley's hawk watches. Why not? They are WASPS! On a birding tour in Southeastern Arizona in 1980, we watched wide-eyed as one of these creatures flew very close. It was big...it was blue...it was loud. And it distracted us by intimidation from observing a life bird. This insect is a member of the spider wasps in a subfamily called Pepsis. There are hundreds of species of spider wasps in deserts from South America north to Utah. They can inhabit elevations of 4000 feet in the Andes, but usually reside in the arid lowlands. They reach two inches or more in length. Their coloration is a striking metallic blue-black with orange-red wings which warn predators, "You don't want to eat me." Some grasshoppers, moths and flies will mimic this pattern to avoid becoming a meal. You will find the "hawk" wherever tarantulas are present. There is a somewhat gruesome reason for this. They really, really like tarantulas....as a living nursery for their young!

Hunting on the ground, they smell out the spider's burrow, yank the dweller out, and when it rises in defense, grab a leg and throw it on its back. Tarantulas usually do not attack in defense, but when they do, the battle may go on for hours. Incidentally, if a spider resists in the lair entrance, the wasp can crush its legs. Next the paralyzing stinger is jabbed into the prey. Now immobilized, the tarantula is hauled back into its burrow where the nightmare begins. The "hawk" lays one egg on the victim's abdomen, and when the larva emerges? A constant, very fresh, living meal. (I warned you, didn't I?)

Although they can avoid this nightmare, humans can be stung by the hawk, but usually only if they handle it. This comes way down on my list of life goals. Thank goodness they won't come at you like a mosquito. I did not know this on that first sighting, however, which can account for the dent in my binoculars when I dropped them. Did you realize that there is actually a rating scale for stinging insects, according to a Web site called DesertUSA? It ranges from one to four for the most excruciating. The hawk is only one of two insects to receive the top rating. The theory is that this power is needed because it spends a lot of tme in the open exposed to predators.

Another odd behavior is that they can go on drunken binges. You see, they are nectar eaters, and the same thing occurs to them that occurs to birds which eat fermented fruit. Nothing worse than an inebriated Tarantula Hawk.

Despite all this, New Mexico has proudly named it the state insect, and there is a South Dakota band named the Tarantula Hawks. They are, indeed, a fascinating, albeit bizarre, story in nature. Hmmmm...I should tell you that they ARE here in the Rio Grande Valley?

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