They are among the largest species of wasp and their name is taken from both its prey and a ruthlessly efficient killing machine, the raptor known as a hawk. Yet the Tarantula Hawk Wasp gains its fearful name and reputation from the simple urge to care for and nourish its young.
Growing up to two inches (5cm) in length the sight of a tarantula hawk would send the average entomophobic in to a state of palpitations. So, perhaps if you are already frowning squeamishly, your knuckles rapidly whitening, then you should not read on.
The various species are found in Asia, the Americas (as far south as Argentina) and Australasia. The stinger of the female tarantula hawk moth is enormous, one of the largest and most painful in the insect world. At 1/3 of an inch in length (almost a centimeter) it has evolved to deal with the wasp’s prey as quickly and efficiently as possible – the tarantula.
When you are fully aware of how the female of the species deals with its prey you realise that Ridley Scott’s concept for Alien was not as out of this world as you may think. After procreation the female has only one instinct – to provide for the next generation. First, she must capture a tarantula.
She has long legs with hooked claws for grappling with her victims – and there will be many. Each spider will sustain only one of her offspring so there will be many fatalities on the road to the production of the next cohort of spider munching wasps.
Once the tarantula is captured she stings it and the venom paralyzes the spider. She has prepared for this moment – a burrow or a nest is nearby and it is to this readymade larder that she drags her unwitting prey. There she will oviposit (lay) a single egg on the spider’s body and retreat, covering the entrance.
Once the female leaves, that is it - no more parental care. The larva hatches after a week. Instinct takes over and it rips in to the abdomen of the spider, thrusting itself in to its belly and begins to feed. The vital organs of the spider are the last to be devoured and once it has had enough to begin the process, pupation begins.
A few weeks later pupation is complete and the adult wasp will emerge. Another belly burst (rather than the chest one to which we are accustomed in Scott’s movies) and the life cycle continues. Only females will hunt – the male lives off nectar. Yet once she is ready to breed she will attract the attention of a male and then the local tarantulas had better watch out.