While it’s true tarantulas are some of the most feared creatures in the land of insects and arachnids, there is yet another creature that haunts even the creepiest spiders' dreams and heralds their nightmares: the tarantula hawk. The insect kingdom is full of harsh predators who do horrific things to their prey, and the tarantula hawk — a formidable species of wasp that prefers dining on one specific creature — is no exception.
The tarantula hawk is what is known as a "spider wasp," a hybrid-like creature possessing one of the most impressive stings in the insect kingdom. Its stinger can not only take out some of the largest spiders on the planet, but it also can knock out a human — at least temporarily. It's a fierce predator and parasite that paralyzes its prey, then slowly feeds on the still-living victim for weeks at a time, nourishing new wasp larvae in the process. These impressive wasps aren't just killers; they also have some unique features that still stump the etymologists who study them. The bottom line that everyone agrees upon when it comes to tarantula hawks, however, is that you do not want to get stung by one.
An entomologist named Justin Schmidt invented a pain index for insect stings, and according to the scale, the tarantula hawk sting ranks at the highest level, giving even "bullet ants" a run for their agony (for comparison, a fire ant ranks at the lowest level of the Schmidt sting pain index).
Though the effects of the tarantula hawk wasp's sting may only last three minutes, it’s said to be so excruciating people lose their ability to move and speak. Even biologists admit it's so "fiercely electric" the only thing you can do if you're stung is to literally lie down and start screaming from the pain. Any attempt to move might hurt you further since there’s a high likelihood you’ll fall from the intensity of the pain.
Once a tarantula hawk has paralyzed a tarantula, they drag it back to a burrow. This in itself is pretty impressive, as one of these spiders can weigh "up to eight times the size of the wasp," according to the BBC. Once she has the tarantula where she wants it, the attacking wasp lays an egg on it and seals up the burrow. When the newborn wasp hatches, it eats the tarantula alive so it gains enough nourishment to grow. It starts with the nonessential parts of the spider before moving to the organs so the spider stays alive for as long as possible, sometimes up to several weeks.
If a young tarantula hawk feasts on a small spider, the wasp itself will be pretty small by the time it matures. If it feasts on a large tarantula, then it will become a large flying death machine. Basically, a baby wasp's adult size is predicated on how big its first tarantula meal is, and that rests on how big a kill the tarantula hawk parent made that day. If the parent scores a big spider, then her young will become formidable.
The mothers can also choose their offspring’s sex. Males come from an unfertilized egg while the females are fully fertilized; according to scientists, this means the "mom can choose to produce a son or a daughter by selectively allowing stored sperm to fertilize the egg." That also means the guys have literally half as much genetic material and act as "the lesser of the species," particularly when it comes to stinging and hunting.
All spiders, including the feared Goliath birdeater, are nothing but playthings to the tarantula hawk. The female wasps hunt tarantulas on the ground; when they find one in their burrows, they strategically pluck one of their webs without getting themselves tangled in the process. The tarantula emerges, thinking it has caught some prey, and that's when the tarantula hawk attacks it, stinging it and paralyzing it. But for the tarantula victim, the true horror is just beginning.