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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© George Andrejko

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The Sting
Tarantula hawks have a scary name and a scarier reputation. Human beings needn’t worry much, but if you’re a spider, you’d better watch your back. And abdomen.

By Kelly Kramer

Tarantula Hawk is a psychedelic rock band from San Diego. Really. More familiar to the Average Joe, however, is the tarantula hawk, the variety of spider wasp that uses its arachnid namesake as a creepy nursery.

The wasp is found wherever tarantulas live, which means it's common in Arizona and across the Southwest. A "nectivorous" insect, the tarantula hawk is a connoisseur of fruit and, reportedly, it'll even get a little loopy after consuming a fermented feast.

Christopher Starr, in his article A Pain Scale for Bee, Wasp and Ant Stings, gave the tarantula hawk a designation of four, on a scale of one to four, which means if a t-hawk stings you, at the very least, you'll cry, and at the very worst, you'll probably wish you'd been run over by a herd of wildebeests instead. Luckily, the pain typically subsides within 3 minutes, but it's easy to see why the tarantula hawk has only a few predators, including roadrunners.

Male wasps engage in a bizarre behavior known as hill-topping, wherein they perch themselves on the tallest vegetation in any given area in an effort to survey mate-ready females. It's a demonstration of bravado, for sure, but when it comes to genuine daring, the girls usually fall for it.

Female wasps, which can measure up to 2 inches in length, seek out tarantulas by smell. Once the wasp has honed in on a suitable victim, she'll sting the spider, thus paralyzing it. If the spider puts up a fight, the tarantula hawk will flip the spider onto its back with a takedown that's reminiscent of something you might see in a televised cage-fight. Occasionally, tired from the attack, the female wasp will drain the spider of much of its body fluid and drag it into its own burrow, where she'll lay a single egg on the stunned spider's abdomen.

Once the larva grows, it begins to feed on the spider, developing rapidly until the infant wasp busts open the spider's abdomen and proceeds to eat the rest of the spider's innards. Thus, a baby tarantula hawk is born. It's not glamorous, but some might consider it psychedelic.

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