Learn about tarantula hawk wasps (genus: pepsis)

Tarantula Hawk Wasp

What’s a Tarantula hawk wasp?

The aptly named Tarantula hawk wasp is one of the scariest insects you’ve never heard of—and a tarantula’s worst nightmare. These flying wasps live around the world, including within the United States from the Canadian border to the Southwest. They are one of the biggest wasps and can reach lengths of up to 2.5 inches long. They have orangish-colored wings (pictured below) which alert would-be enemies to their strong defenses.

Tarantula hawk wasp

Here’s a close-up of a tarantula’s worst enemy:
the Tarantula hawk wasp

Tarantula hawks - The carnage begins…

Spring is here, flowers are budding, and it’s time for these wasps to mate and produce the next generation of terror. That’s bad news for nearby tarantulas. Here’s how Tarantula hawk wasps reproduce.

After mating, the female will take flight in search of a wandering tarantula. Once she finds one, she’ll carefully approach the spider, and will eventually slip underneath it and flip it over onto its back—sometimes after a long struggle. Once she’s on top, pardon the pun, she takes her quarter-inch-long stinger and injects a horrific venom into the tarantula—usually choosing soft tissue in-between joints.

The tarantula is almost instantly paralyzed, but remains absolutely alive. The Tarantula hawk then drags the tarantula to a burrow where she lays a single egg on the living spider’s abdomen. She then leaves the spider and seals the burrow.

Now, as you know if you’ve been reading through this website, tarantulas’s can easily live for weeks without food. So, the tarantula remains in the burrow for days, still completely paralyzed. The egg then hatches, and the larva burrows into the tarantula’s abdomen.

Here’s where it gets gross, messy, and disturbing. The larva eats the innards of the tarantula, but avoids the vital organs so that the tarantula stays alive for weeks! Eventually, the larva pupates (think cocoon) and finally bursts out of the tarantula as an adult. It’s the stuff of nightmares really.

You’d probably think Tarantula hawks are bloodthirsty insects, but in fact, the adults consume the flowers and buds of Milkweeds and Mesquite trees. Males don’t even have a stinger.

Pepsis grossa

Here we see Pepsis thisbe dragging
off another hapless tarantula victim

Tarantula hawk sting

You’ve read how the wasp’s venom affects tarantulas, but what about humans? While these wasps don’t go around picking fights, they will sting humans if disturbed.

Justin Schmidt is an entomologist (studies insects) in the United States and in 1983 created the Schmidt Pain Index. Since then, he’s been bitten and stung by hundreds of insects, and has ranked the resulting pain on a detailed scale. Are you curious what he thought of the Tarantula hawk’s sting?

He described the sting as the second most painful in the world (only behind the Bullet ant), and more specifically, “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three inch nail embedded in your heel.”

Tarantula hawk stinging

Tarantula hawks deliver an excruciating
sting that paralyzes their prey: tarantulas


Does the tarantula hawk have any natural enemies? Pretty much just one—the Roadrunner, which can consume them without much trouble.

New Mexico has made the Tarantula hawk (Pepsis grossa) its official state insect. Nice.