Imagine that you are innocently walking around your yard or garden in the southern United States, and you are confronted with a wasp that is 5 centimeters long, with a stinger that is about 7mm long. With a black body and dark red wings, the tarantula hawk is one of the largest wasps in the world. If stung by the tarantula wasp, you will be in one of the most intense, agonizing pains caused by an insect. Described as “blinding” and “paralyzing”, the extremely large stingers make this insect a fearful predator. What are the risks of a sting from the tarantula hawk? Where does its name come from? Where can they be found? This is the story of the horrifying wasp, whose sting will paralyze you, and make you scream in pain.
The Pain of the wasp’s sting
The sting of the tarantula wasp is said to be one of the most painful insect stings in the world. Although the intense pain only lasts for about three minutes, the pain is said to be immediate and excruciating. The wasp’s sting is rated near the top of the Schmidt sting pain index. It comes in second, just after the sting of the bullet ant. Schmidt has described the pain as being “blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric.” Because their stingers are so large, there are very few animals that can eat them.
So how bad is the pain of the tarantula wasp’s sting? Really, really, bad. One researcher described the pain as “immediate, excruciating pain that simply shut down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.” That’s right folks – if stung by the tarantula wasp, the pain will be so horrible that it will stop you from using all your other senses, blinding you momentarily. Another account explained that the pain was so horrible, that the person “lost the ability to think about anything else but the brutal, blinding pain wracking my body”. Although the pain only lasts about five minutes, it feels like an eternity, according to most accounts.
What to do if stung
So how do you deal with this excruciating pain? According to Ben Hutchins, invertebrate biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife, the recommendation to deal with the excruciating pain, is to simply “lie down and start screaming, because few if any people could maintain verbal and physical coordination after getting stung by [a tarantula hawk].” The reason behind lying down and screaming? Because you loose control of your body, lying down ensures that you don’t run off and hurt yourself.
Where can we find them?
If you really want to avoid running into a tarantula wasp, there are certain places that we recommend you avoid. To be honest, there are a lot of places where they can be found. India, Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas all have tarantula hawks. In the United States, they can be found as far north as Utah, and as far south as Argentina in South America. There are also quite a few found in southwestern United States.
The Threat to Humans
Okay, so if you can’t avoid going to these places, what is the actual threat to humans? Interestingly enough, aside from the excruciating pain, the wasp’s sting isn’t particularly poisonous. Tarantula hawks are actually pretty docile creatures, and they rarely sting unless they are provoked. Except for those who are allergic to wasps, the sting is not dangerous and victims usually don’t need medical attention. You might find some redness around the area, which can last up to a week, but shouldn’t irritate you too much. So basically, if stung, the only thing to do is lie down and scream, until the pain subsides.
What’s in a name?
So why is this powerful critter called a tarantula hawk? While the “hawk” part likely comes from its large size (remember, it’s one of the largest wasp species), the “tarantula” part of its name comes from its prey. The female tarantula hawk stings and paralyzes a tarantula, and then brings it to its brooding nest. There, the wasp lays one single egg on the spider’s abdomen, and then the entrance to the brooding nest is covered. When the larva hatches, it will create a small hole in the spider’s abdomen. It will enter the spider and start feeding on its insides. The larva will actually start by avoiding the spider’s vital organs, so that the spider will stay alive for as long as possible.
The Imitation Game
Because of their painful sting and large size, many animals will avoid the tarantula wasp. For this reason, many insects will actual mimic the wasp so that they can scare off predators. Some of the tarantula wasp’s imitator’s include other wasps, bees, moths, flies and even beetles.
In the end, it is very unlikely that you will be stung by a tarantula wasp. The relatively docile creatures are pretty hesitant to actually use their stingers, and ultimately, they’re actually pretty fascinating creatures. So, if you spot a tarantula wasp, just sit back, relax, leave it alone, and watch it feed a tarantula, often over three times the size of the wasp, to its little larva. And, well, if ever you have the misfortune of getting stung by a tarantula wasp, you now know what to do: lie down and scream!
+Bonus Knowledge Nugget
Did you know that the tarantula hawk is actually the official state insect of the U.S. state of New Mexico? Officially proclaimed in 1989, it was actually selected by a group of elementary school children from Edgewood, New Mexico. There were three insects selected as potential candidates, and then all schools voted in a statewide election. Another cool fact about the wasp? The male tarantula hawk doesn’t hunt, but rather, feeds off the flowers of different trees and weeds. In order to reproduce, the males will sit atop tall plants and just wait for females to pass by them. It looks like the female tarantula wasp does all the work!
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