The Story of the Tarantula and the Tarantula Hawk Wasp

THIS Event during the Summer Belongs on Halloween!
The Story of the Tarantula and the Tarantula Hawk Wasp

All of the images were captured with my video camera.

A tarantula hawk wasp feeding along the top of a milkweed plant.A tarantula hawk wasp feeding along the top of a milkweed plant.

IMAGINE – You belong to the arthropod family; you are an eight-legged, furry tarantula and its late summer in the high desert. Day after day your body endures more than a sixty-degree temperature swing. You experience dry, cold nights and baking hot afternoons but you’ve adapted, after all, you’re a spider. You live in a river valley that has water during the winter but right now in the summer everything is dried up and you are inside your shady little spider den minding your own business and tap, tap, tap, who is that outside of your web burrow, maybe it’s a trapped insect, your breakfast? You inch your way up to investigate and discover it’s not a tasty morsel but your archenemy, the female tarantula hawk wasp. Screech – Cue the scary music! The tarantula hawk is about two-inches long, purple hued with almost a metallic finish and bright orange wings, it’s a member of the spider wasp family. It has grappling-like hooks on its legs, which it uses for snagging and dragging things. This visitor can inflict a very painful, instant sting. Humans rate their sting second only to the fire ant in the pain it can cause, but you don’t know that, yet, she has bigger plans for you… At the entrance to your den, there is hardly room to turn around let alone think about fighting or scrambling for cover and the next thing you know – ZAP! You are stung.

Typical hawk habitat. Do you see the four wasps feeding?Typical hawk habitat. Do you see the four wasps feeding?

Within this dry, bushy habitat male tarantula hawks are content collecting moisture from the tops of flowering plants but female tarantula hawks fly around and hunt tarantulas as food for their larvae. They resemble a Marines’ V22 Osprey Helicopter, capable of going straight up but also forward or backward at remarkable speeds. From overhead maybe six-feet above the ground they hover, then land, springing from bush to bush looking for tarantula dens which resemble small caves with spider web at the entrance. When they think they are in the right area they drop quickly to the ground and run in and out of holes, inspecting. Once they are successful in targeting their prey and able to coax the spider out from its den; they sting, paralyze and drag its body to the location of their choosing. Although the hawk may be two-times smaller than the spider, the hawk is in full control of the tarantula, all the spider can do is lay, twitching its hairy legs.

The helpless spider is pulled across the terrain. This bizarre event happens rather quickly.

The hawk sometimes drops the tarantula and runs to and fro, cleans her long, thick antennae by pulling them one by one through her pincher-like appendage under her mouth or across her front legs. She gauges her progress; inch-by-inch runs back to grab her prey, twists and pushes the tarantula’s body towards her ultimate goal, her nest. The hawk is careful not to hurt the spider, pulling and pushing the arthropod dozens or even hundreds of feet, pausing to keep on track of her finish line.

The hawk dropped her prey and cleans her antennae. Her dens air vent is to her left and the paralyzed spider lies directly behind her.

Once at the entrance to her nest she unhooks the spider and makes one final check inside to make sure a visitor did not go into her den while she was away. She runs out, lunges towards the tarantula and gives it a firm bite, holding on she rapidly moves all six legs backward, dragging it into her lair. All that is left to see is an empty hole, footprints and drag marks where the two insects crossed the soft sand. No sounds are audible to the human ears, just an empty hole and our imagination, what’s going on down there? *

Literature describing the events taking place below the earth takes a macabre twist. The female tarantula hawk wasp flips her paralyzed victim over and injects one egg above the tarantula’s abdomen. Evolution sure is interesting. Completing her job the female hawk seals her den with tiny stones, leaving slight air passages and continues trapping the spider inside until she is reaches daylight and flies away. Her larvae will eventually hatch and burrow its way into the tarantula’s abdomen. Careful to keep it alive, the larvae feeds around the tarantulas vital organs. After several weeks of development the larva populates which is like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, breaks through and emerges from the tarantulas abdomen. The spider is dead; and the wasp is a miniature version of its parent, able to move rocks and sand, digs its way out from underground to begin its life cycle.

This last shot was just inches away from her den and probably the last time this spider saw daylight...This last shot was just inches away from her den and probably the last time this spider saw daylight…

The whole event reminds me a lot of the horror classic ALIEN by director Ridley Scott. Man! That movie got me to jump out of my seat several times when I watched it in the theater! But, this story is real…

*Video of what is going on down there is captured by film making specialists that set up an artificial environment with specialized macro cameras and LED lighting. This type of setup is referred to as desktop film making because oftentimes the environment is removed from the wild and reassembled inside a warehouse or garage onto an elevated table that makes it easier to move around and set up cameras. This type of film making requires a huge amount of patience and persistence, something I have never tried but would like too someday, just as long as I am careful and don’t get stung! Outside of the nest I was initially afraid to work with the hawks because they can move so quickly.  They also have the reputation for stinging but I found them to be docile and was able to move my camera within 18 inches for multiple shots. I got lucky.

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