Tarantula-hawk wasp preys on spider

Monday’s Macro: Tarantula-hawk wasp

Tarantula-hawk wasp versus tarantula spider.
A Tarantula-hawk wasp has snared a large tarantula spider and must drag it over uneven terrain, to it’s nest.
Tarantula-hawk wasp hauls prey
This female wasp has extraordinary strength to lift it’s large prey over the wall.
Tarantula-hawk wasp preys on spider
It’s an herculean undertaking – the tarantula-hawk wasp is half the size of the spider.

An eventful drama played out over a couple of days and as it unfolded, the plot could be pieced together.  There’s nothing quite like the satisfying discovery that these two ‘players’ are named for their specialised roles and the piece being enacted was precisely as it should be.  But wait!  The prey is twice the size and has it’s own fearsome reputation and appearance, so how does this pan out?

I was to learn that this rather dashing looking insect is a female wasp (curved feelers), and working on her own, was busy building a burrow, gathering up gravel chips and placing them with neat accuracy into a bulwark of defense to protect the tunnel opening.  It was intriguing to see her fuss over the stones: picking and choosing the exact shape required.  She used her strong mandibles to move them into place with such precision.  I regret not having a camera to record her engineering efforts.   She worked with energetic intent.

Next day, after a lot of flitting about, here – there, and everywhere else, triumph!  She’d tracked and snagged a fat spider twice her size and spent a good part of an hour dragging it across an uneven patch of lawn, up a terrace wall and over rough gravel, back to the nest.  The spider, though still alive was in a paralysed state as this predator is of the largest of the parasitoid wasp species and inflicts the most potent of stings.  It is recorded as having the most painful of insect stings in the world!  Well, there it was stalking around my garden and i was so blissfully unaware of it’s murderous capabilities.

The whole grand scheme is to provide a living meal for the larva when is hatches.  Just a single egg is laid on the spider’s abdomen.  After hatching and several weeks of worming around the spider’s innards, the larva pupates and finally emerges from the spider’s abdomen to continue the adult life cycle.

So there you have it –  a record of the maternal behaviour of the Tarantula-hawk wasp (Pepsis mildei) and the merciless fate of a hapless baboon spider (Harpactirinae), a sub species of the Tarantula (Theraphosidae) spiders.



20 thoughts on “Monday’s Macro: Tarantula-hawk wasp

  1. It is a fantastic phenomenon to witness. I have watched several spider-hunting wasps in our garden over the years and never cease to be amazed at the discrepancy between the really light-weight looking wasp and the bulk of its spider prey. Your photographs are very interesting.

    1. Ark, over at Arkenaten’s Tales relates an encounter where the same scene unfolds, except the wasp is disturbed and flies off, giving Ark a chance to rescue the spider. He kept observing it over 24 days. It moulted a few times shedding the toxins, but for some days remained immobile. Perhaps the paralysis numbs any of the sensations the poor spider may have undergone with a larva eating away at it? That may be comforting …. ?

  2. Terrific macro photography, Liz, and showcasing some very interesting behaviour that relatively few people are aware of. Just this past weekend at Joubert’s cricket game I could show the whole team’s parents and children this exact same scenario, when a wasp dragged a spider across the pavilion we were sitting on, and none of them had known about this fascinating lifecycle before.

  3. Hi, Lyz,
    Not to nit pick …..

    This is a Pompilid wasp and the spider is the harmless ( to humans) South African rain spider (Palystes superciliosus).

    The wasp hunts down the spider, usually tracking its prey on the ground. Once it finds a suitable target it stings the spider, paralyses it, then lays a single egg.

    Once the egg hatches the wasp lavae eats the spider inside out, beginning with the non-essential soft organs to ensure the spider remains alive until the wasp is ready to emerge.

    Not the most pleasant way to go. Think Aliens.

    You might enjoy this read ….

    1. Hi Ark, We partway agree on the wasp – the genus “pepsis” falls under the Pompilidae family and am checking on the species “mildei”. Disagree that it is a rain spider which has a flatter body and longer legs than the one in my pics. I posted photos on iNaturalist for identification. Will be interesting to see what comes back…..
      Remember that old rhyme for the taxonomy hierarchy, (mind you i’m a bit rusty- it’s a long time back since school biology lessons) – something like Dear King Philip Came Over For Good Soup ….. Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Order…. etc
      Yes, thinking alien movies …. and particularly that awful horror movie with Sigourney Weaver!! The details of the slow death of the spider by the larva is so macabre. Not a pleasant way to go!
      Your encounter was fascinating… the length of time the traumatised spider lingered on …

      1. I was unaware we had Tarantulas in SA. I thought this was an American name for them?

        Anyway, I await the verdict on the ID of the spider with interest.

    2. Hi Ark, you’re right about the rain spider! and the wasp is of the Pompilid family. Will edit and update. Thanks for the vigilance on ID’s. I should have been a bit more clued up as had spotted several rain spider nests in the garden in the same vicinity as the action.

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