Arizona's creepy crawlers: Tarantula Hawks

Posted at 10:59 AM, Dec 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-30 13:01:18-05

Here in the dusty Sonoran desert, an insect lurks with one of the world's most painful stings.

The sting belongs to the Pepsis and Hemepepsis wasps, or, as the average person calls them, the Tarantula Hawks. A tarantula hawk's sting is so powerful that it paralyzes its prey, the tarantula, and then pulls its body into its nest. After, the wasp lays an egg on top of the spider and seals her burrow, trapping the spider with her egg. When the egg hatches, the helpless tarantula is slowly devoured alive across a period of weeks as the wasp matures.

Here's an Animal Planet video of a harrowing taruntula hawk vs. a taruntula fight:

Fortunately for us, the tarantula hawk wasps aren't interested in stinging people, unless you're Coyote Peterson, animal expert and Youtube star of Brave Wilderness, who wanted to be stung.

(Warning, if you're squeamish, Peterson's video is not for you)

Though not lethal, and short in duration, the pain from being stung is nothing to scoff at. One researcher, Christopher Cokinos, described a sting like this:

"To me, the pain is like an electric wand that hits you, inducing an immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations."

U.S. entomologist Justin Schmidt, who created the sting pain index described the sting as "instantaneous, electrifying and totally debilitating."

So yes, it is acceptable if you scream when stung, even if it is highly unlikely. The Natural history museam says that the wasps are "fairly docile unless provoked," and Gene Hall, the Museum Manager at the UA Entomology Museum's Insect Collection,
told Tucson Weekly that the wasps are really "gentle giants" of desert flowers.

Where are they? The southwest deserts, but if you're looking to find one more locally, places with abundant, flowering desert brush are your best bet. Particularly, in July. Per the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, the peak season for viewing is summer, and its only prey tends to be bullfrogs and roadrunners. They are the selective few who can handle the jabs of the wasp's stinger.

What do they look like? Big. Or, at least, big enough to fend off tarantulas and scare the average not-so-fond-of-bugs person.

Specifically, a tarantula hawk can get up to two inches in size, but their defining feature is their wings, which burst with rich don't-mess-with-me oranges and reds, similar to the appearance of amber glass. These are a radical contrast to its sleek body, which is a metallic blue-black.

Sources: Desert USA, the Arizona Desert Musuem, Arizona Highways, The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide,