The Tarantula Hawk (pepsis grossa, formerly pepsis formosa) is an extraordinary insect. It’s a large and menacing solitary wasp, somewhat different than the typical yellowjacket. First of all, it’s much, much larger. They can grow up to 7.5 centimeters in length and a wingspan of 10 centimeters. On some females, the stinger alone can reach lengths of 7mm. Another unusual trait of Pepsis grossa is that they have an abnormally long lifespan for a wasp. They are known to live for up to one full year. Quite peculiar indeed.
There’s surprisingly little known about this Tarantula Hawk, perhaps because the painful sting makes it somewhat unencouraging to study. Generally however, they won’t attack unless they feel threatened, so slow movements and gentle handling can help you avoid one of the most painful stings the animal kingdom has to offer. In order to understand them better, we’re going to look a little bit at their family.
A little about wasps
Wasps are interesting. They are not a formal group in and of themselves, but rather an exclusion from the rest of their suborder. Their suborder, Apocrita, also includes ants and bees. What’s interesting about wasps is that they are defined as any insect in the order of Hymenoptera, in the suborder of Apocrita, that is NOT an ant or a bee. So, any insect in their suborder that isn’t defined as either an ant or a bee, is automatically a wasp.
Tarantula Hawks are part of the Pompilidae family, the spider wasp family. This is a very large family of parasitic and solitary wasps, either feeding on spiders or laying their eggs inside them. There are over 5000 wasps in the Pompilidae family, and their distribution is worldwide.
Behaviour and Mating
Believe it or not, but the adult tarantula hawk is a nectarivore. The ultimate form of veganism, nectarivores feed exclusively on nectar. It’s a common belief that only monarch butterflies feed on milkweed nectar, but tarantula hawks are known to primarily feed on milkweed nectar as well. They do occasionally dabble in other forms of food, however, and have been known to drink themselves silly on the juice of fermented fruit.
The parasitic young, however, feed voraciously on the tarantula their egg was laid in. They hatch from their egg inside the abdomen of the tarantula and begin eating the tarantula from the inside out, avoiding vital organs in order to keep the tarantula alive. Ideally, the tarantula only dies once the wasp is at the final stage of its development, right before it leaves the burrow.
Habitat and Distribution
Tarantula Hawks have a large distribution, covering much of the tropical and subtropical landscapes the world has to offer.