Bright colors in the animal kingdom usually mean danger. And the bright colors of the tarantula falcon definitely mean danger, not only because of the strong sting it possesses but also because of its favorite prey, the tarantula.
Tarantula hawks, which are actually a species of wasp, belong to a large and very diverse family of insects known as the Pompilidae family. This family is represented by several thousand species that occur worldwide. Members of this family prefer to live in temperate climates, and while some species prefer more tropical habitats, there are several species that Texas and other areas in the Southwest have chosen as their home. The most common species in Texas (Pepsis sp.) Lives in semi-arid to arid areas, especially areas with sandy and / or loose soils.
Tarantula hawks, like all other insects, have three body parts; the head, the rib cage and the abdomen. These parts of the body are vividly colored with an iridescent blue-black hue that is accentuated by the bright orange wings attached to the rib cage. It also has six legs, large eyes, elongated antennae, and mouth parts that are adapted to its preferred food source, the nectar. In addition to being exceptionally bright in color, this species of wasp is also great in size, with adult females reaching body lengths of up to 2 inches with a wingspan of just over 3 inches.
The life cycle of this fascinating species is pretty simple, but also pretty terrible if you’re a tarantula, which I’ll get into in a moment. For the vast majority of the year, this species of wasp lives a solitary life, where both sexes feed on the nectar from mesquite, acacia, and milkweed flowers. In fact, it has been documented multiple times that men actually fed more fermented nectar than they couldn’t fly at all!
Male tarantulas often dwell in areas with nectar-producing blooms, waiting for a reproductively receptive female to arrive so they can mate. Once this event takes place, the horror show for the furry eight-legged arachnids begins. At this point, the female tarantula hawk deserves its namesake and begins to soar a few feet off the ground as a bird of prey in search of its prey. She then lands and begins desperately to search the grounds for a tarantula active on the surface or in a burrow.
As soon as a tarantula is found, a brawl ensues that can only be described as a total brawl. The female tarantula will use her unusually long legs (which, by the way, have hooks on their joints) to delve into the tarantula as she tries to inject her long (up to a quarter inch!) Sting into her prey. Once it injects its venom into the spider, the venom doesn’t actually kill the victim, it just paralyzes them. Once her prey is immobilized, the female tarantula tries to pull her prey into her burrow. This process can take an hour or more.
As if this weren’t bad enough for the tarantula, from this point on it only gets worse, even worse. Once the tarantula hawk has the spider in its burrow, it lays a single egg on the outside of the abdomen. Within a week, the egg hatches and this larva then attaches itself to the spider with exceptionally jagged mandibles and drinks minimal amounts of abdominal fluid as it transforms in a process of four larval cycles. During the fifth stage of development, the larva (which is about 5 cm long at this point) chews into the body cavity of the still living spider, consumes the innards and finally kills the tarantula. It then turns a cocoon and stays in the spider. Once pupated, it leaves both the spider and the burrow to continue the life cycle again. This entire process takes just under a year.
The venomous sting this wasp uses to immobilize its prey is said to be very, VERY painful. Many people who have had the unfortunate experience have stated that it was the most excruciating pain they had ever experienced, almost to the point of immobilizing themselves. However, the pain was short-lived (less than 15 minutes), and this species of wasp is naturally benign and only stings after a lot of compulsion and excitement. And while the sting is powerful, there is no immediate danger or long-term negative impact. When you watch this colorful insect, give it plenty of space, but don’t fret. Much more interested in looking for creatures with eight legs than creatures that walk with only two!
Michael Price owns Wild About Texas, an education company specializing in poisonous animal safety training, environmental counseling, and ecotourism. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.