I knew nothing about the tarantula hawk. I have seen them around the yard for years, and even though they make a fearsome showing with their blue-black body and bright red wings, they never seem aggressive, and we leave each other alone. Until yesterday. I was hiking with my pack along a county trail near my home, and noticed a tarantula hawk dragging a tarantula across the trail. I’ve seen video of this behavior a time or two before, but never in person. With no camera, I whipped out my cell phone and tried to get close enough for a pic. When I get within about 6-8 feet of the subject, the wasp left the tarantula prize and flew directly at me, very menacingly. It turned out to be a warning, or a bluff, and when I jumped back to the proper distance (according to the wasp), she returned to her quarry and continued on across the trail:
Back home, I did some quick research. Seems these are critters you don’t want to mess with. First, it’s the female that does the hunting, so that’s reason enough to leave it alone. Second, they don’t actually kill the tarantula, but merely paralyze it and drag it back live to their nest, where they lay an egg into the abdomen of the tarantula. When the egg hatches, the larvae has a ready and fresh food source. Very macabre.
Now, here’s the interesting note that concerns us all: the sting of the Tarantula Hawk is the most painful of any sting in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Bullet Ant anywhere in the world, according to the Schmidt Pain Index. It is not fatal, nor particularly dangerous, but it is excruciatingly painful for many minutes, described as “…simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.”
Seems like a good reason to give them plenty of space and simply observe from a distance.