The Pueblo West View

Pueblo West harbors own horror show when it comes to the morbid yet fascinating tarantula hawk wasp

Halloween makes us think of scary movies and haunted houses, which give us an adrenaline rush of fear.

But, that rush is short lived, and we know it is make believe and special effects that create the fear.

Nature has its share of real life fear-inducing creatures and one lives right in our back yard (cue spooky music) and it is an insect.

The story of the Tarantula hawk wasp is fascinating and morbid on many levels.

It gets its name because it uses Tarantulas and other large spiders during its reproductive cycle.

They are large, sometimes very large wasps that are blue-black in color with bright orange or reddish wings.

As adults they eat nectar and pollen and may be seen in groups of a dozen or more on milk weeds and other flowering shrubs.

The males may be seen in tree tops and rock ledges where they can get a good view of the area and keep an eye out for females interested in mating, this is called “hill topping.”

After mating has occurred the female wasp goes looking for a tarantula.

If she finds one in its burrow, the wasp will drum on the silk webbing at the burrows entrance.

The tarantula comes out to investigate if a meal is approaching and the wasp uses her 1/3 inch stinger to inject venom into the tarantula. Or, if the wasp encounters a tarantula walking around, she will grab hold of the spider’s leg and flips it over on its back and stings it.

The venom acts within a few seconds, rendering the spider paralyzed but very much alive.

The wasp then drags the spider to a hole and lays a single egg on the spider and buries it.

In three to four days the egg hatches and the larva begins to suck out all the fluids from the paralyzed, but live spider.

Over the next 30 days the larva will eventually eat the flesh of the entire spider.

What an agonizing way for the spider to die.

If the egg is not viable and does not hatch, the spider will eventually recover and survive.

Female wasps lay an estimated dozen eggs in this fashion, so you can see the spider mortality during this time is very high.

THERE ARE 15 species of Tarantula hawk wasps in North America and Colorado has six of them.

They are abundant in our area, most likely related to the available food source and tarantulas.

The only known predator is the Roadrunner, which has a limited range in Colorado.

From a human aspect, the story remains just as horrific.

The Tarantula hawk wasp has the most painful sting of any insect in North America; beat out for the world title by an ant in Nicaragua.

How do we know this you may ask?

Because the “Schmidt Sting Pain Index” tells us so.

Dr. Justin Schmidt, an entomologist from Arizona, has allowed himself to be stung by 150 different insects in order to rank the pain from 1 to 4.

Schmidt ranks yellow jackets and hornets as a 2, having been stung by a yellow jacket, I am embarrassed to say my reaction was much bigger than a 2!

He ranks the Tarantula hawk wasp as a 4.

Schmidt uses very colorful language, in describing a bite and states the sting was “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric, a running hair drier dropped in your bubble bath pain.”

The good news is for the most part they are very docile and only sting when provoked, and only the females sting and the pain lasts three to five minutes.

The question is what is provoking to a wasp.

Sometimes nature is stranger than fiction.

Happy Halloween!

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The Pueblo West View