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musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser


June 23, 2007

Beware the flutter of orange wings

Guess what we found in our yard today? Warning, the answer may disturb you. In fact, if you don’t like insects, you might want to scroll back down to the jacaranda post. Yeah, another bug. We’ve decided maybe our yard is some kind of strange crossroads for wildlife, because all these critters keep showing up that we’ve never seen before, many of them bugs.

Yesterday afternoon, while we sat on the front porch admiring our newest young trees and basking in the flush of their recent growth, we saw a curious flutter of orange wings lit by the glow of the sinking sun. We didn’t recognize the creature, but it looked too small for a hummingbird and too big for an insect. A dragonfly perhaps? But we’d never seen an orange one. Before we could get a closer look, it was gone, so ephemeral it could’ve been a little orange fairy come to celebrate our new mini-grove of trees with us.

Ahem. Today it came back. In the clear light of midday, it was obviously not a fairy but a very large wasp, striking all the same with its two-inch black body and orange wings, but definitely not a fairy. My husband caught it in a jar for a closer look, and he asked some of the neighbors if they’d ever seen such a thing. One man thought it was a tarantula hawk (Desert USA) . I took some pictures, and my husband let it go. Later I looked it up on the Internet, and confirmed it was a tarantula hawk (BugGuide). By the way, all of the pictures I found online are better than mine, so they’re worth a look.

Tarantula Hawk 03 There are apparently three different species known as tarantula hawks, but they all look pretty much the same, although I came across one link with a photo of orange spirals on the female’s antennae (What’s That Bug? — scroll down to tarantula hawk).

According to one source at Wikipedia, this wasp has the most painful sting of any insect in North America—so I’m glad we survived its flights through our yard without mishap, but it didn’t seem very aggressive and I suspect it was simply minding its own business searching out a tarantula. It’s the adult female tarantula hawk that has the sting, and she’s distinguishable by her antennae wound in spirals (like the one we found). She uses her stinger to paralyze a tarantula so she can lay an egg (Desert Wildlife) inside its body. The tarantula survives the sting in a paralyzed state, but later on it doesn’t survive the young wasp hatching inside it and enjoying it as its first meal. Its only predator is the roadrunner. Surely this bug is a source of some of the more horrific science fiction stories. Except if you’re a tarantula it’s not fiction but real-life horror, and even for a human the sting is reportedly worth at least one real scream.

Tarantula Hawk 02 Tarantula Hawk 04 Tarantula Hawk 05

A blurry glimpse of its silhouette in flight (safely inside the plastic jar):
Tarantula Hawk 01

— Barbara @ rudimentary 9:01 pm PST, 06/23/07

32 Comments

  1. Wow, and you caught it in a jar! I’d be skeered to do that. I never heard
    of that bug either.

    I have a plain ol’, regular wasp crawling into a hole on my front porch roof. I am HOPING he/she doesn’t build a nest or raise a family in there. It’s a tiny little slot where two metal poles don’t quite meet….arghhh. I have no idea how to chase them away…so I just watch. And on my (dying) butterfly bushes (we’re in a semi-drought here) I see little mud houses clinging to the branches…must be some kind of little wasp? I dunno. But these nests are only about the size of a Swedish meatball. heh!

  2. Creechman says:

    I was going to take in a matinĂ©e DVD this afternoon, “Alien.” But I just changed my mind.

  3. cassie-b says:

    Thanks – that’s one ugly acting creature. I’ll be on the lookout, but I haven’t heard anything here in SE Pennsylvania.

    Cas

  4. Eric Mayer says:

    Oh No! What a monstrosity. The most painful sting? I just bought a new can of wasp poison, of the sort that shoots a stream 25 feet, which is what we use when the nasties start building nests around the porch or shed.

    I don’t recall the name or the author but long ago I read an sf story in which the poor protagonist entices a strange woman back to his room, only to discover that “she” is a disguised alien insect, part of an invasion. They have all arrived to lay eggs in their human hosts.

  5. I am SO not a fan of bugs…I would rather have snakes in my garden (non-poisonous ones, that is).

  6. Sarah says:

    Interesting critter. The article in DesertUSA was full of stuff, more than I ever really wanted to know about Tarantula Hawks, but at the end I had my question answered, which was wondering where they got their name. I always think of Hawk as a bird, a bird of prey. Well those wasps are predators, all right. One of the creatures of the universe I suppose and part of the great web of life–but I won’t mind if they occupy a different part of the web from me.

    Snakes, insects, reptiles–they’re all just fine with me. Except scorpions. I draw the line at scorpions. Ugh!

  7. Reenie says:

    Holy Canoli!

  8. blogdog says:

    Ugh! I can’t even look at the pictures on the blog without a can of Raid in one hand.

  9. Kathy says:

    I was stung this morning by one of these lovely insectes and I must admit I do thnk it is beautiful with its bright orange wings and antennae wound in spirals. Even had a friend take a photo prior to being stung. I was trying to get it out of our Arizona Room so the dogs would not try and eat it. Needless to say I did NOT know it would sting so just had a big towel to catch it and let it go. POW! boy did I get stung (in the thumb) and yes it is so very painful. The pain lasted a good 30-45 minutes and did not sudside in intensity. Advice-catch it in a cup/lid and release. Hoping no egg was laid and my thumb will not explode with a baby wasp feasting on thumb tissue!

  10. Barbara says:

    Kathy, I shudder to think how painful that must’ve been! I hope it feels better soon. Thank you for stopping by.

  11. Joe B says:

    Thanks for the great info! I just saw one of these this morning at our campsite as we were packing to leave. Nobody knew what it was, including me. I figured I’d look it up when I got home and found your site. I’m glad we didn’t see these things earlier in our trip ’cause I would have been totally freaked out!

  12. damion esquivel says:

    I have a bush full wasps with two tarantula hawks in it

  13. Jessica says:

    I see them on my condo grounds in Tucson. Does this mean we have an infestation? Are they dangerous other than the pain? I just saw one outside my kitchen window. I’m a little freaked out.

  14. C Schofield says:
  15. C Schofield says:

    wow wow wow. I just saw one in my backyard and had no idea what it was. Of course as I rushed in to report to my mother via texting I was excitingly telling her that it was almost the size as a hummingbird and not a dragonfly cause no tail but too big to any type of flying bettle or insect. Then being the goof ball I am I said maybe it was a fairy from ferngully ( a cartoon movie I watched when I was younger) I found it amazing to find it on the enternet so easily and how much my reaction was matched. haha

  16. Theresa says:

    Hi, we are in New Hampshire and have been watching this strange insect digging in the ground for more then two weeks. Looks like we will make it move to another home, from a distance that is. Thanks for the information.

  17. etc says:

    Yeah, Ouch! Got stung earlier today at my in-laws farm. I felt the stung on my thigh, looked down and thought, “What on Earth is that, and why is it stinging me?” as I was swating it away. I have no idea why it was stinging me. Maybe I got to close to it’s home or made it feel threatened, but I honestly had no idea it was even there until she stung me. My father-in-law told me what it was after I descibed it to him, but I just had to look it up when I got home to confirm. They don’t lay the larvae through the stinger, do they? The stinger is just to paralyze the spider, right?

  18. Josh says:

    Just saw one of these dragging a very large tarantula across the yard. I heard leaves crumbling and looked over. At first I thought the tarantula was attacking this thing, much to my surprise it was the smaller flying creature actually dragging the 6″ diameter spider across the ground. I’ve very amazing. I can’t wait to tell my wife there’s something outside killing the tarantulas for her. She’ll be very excited.

  19. chelley says:

    One of these just landed on my blanket while watching tv. I freaked!!! Once we got it in a jar, I went straight to the internet. The strange thing, it seems, is that I live in Washington. Is this a normal habitat for these things? I’ve never seen one before and I hope I never do. I’m a little freaked out that they prey on trantulas…hope I never see one of those either. If anyone has any information about this, please let me know.

  20. Connie says:

    My 22 yr. old grand daughter was raking up leaves in the planter and
    unearthed a dead male tarantula hawk today. I’ve heard of them, but
    have never seen one before. I guess it was a male. It had smaller
    antaena without the curl. About 15 yrs. ago my husband was on his 2
    week annual stint with the CA National Guard out in the Death Valley
    area and was stung by one. He said it was unbelievably painful. The
    one we found today is beautiful. Looks like a huge horsefly with
    reddish orange wings.

  21. Pamela Simpson says:

    I just saw one on a golf course here in Goodyear, Az. When I saw this thing it really caught my eye because it was walking and really big. When I saw it had wings which were reddish orange then I was really scared because I was walking. It didn’t seem like it really wanted to fly. It flitted it’s wings and came off the ground a few inches, that is when I really saw the color. I explained to a friend that it was black and 20 times bigger than a wasp. I am on this page because I was trying to find out what that bug was! I would never try catching it!!!!!!

  22. Mister B says:

    Stung on the thumb while trying to remove one from the kitchen, what an
    instant pain I received. Thumb still bothers me three days after the sting. Dumb Thumb won’t do that again. Lots of them flying around here
    in the San Pedero Valley. Benson AZ. (Desert Willow’s are in full Bloom)

  23. Marie Touitou says:

    Barbara, I came across your blog when I Googled big black bug with orange wings. Thanks to you I now know it is a tarantula hawk. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of them since we have so many tarantulas here we have a festival for them in October.

    Marie
    Coarsegold, CA

  24. Michael Gentis says:

    I live in Sonora, Ca. which is about 1 1/2 hours northwest of Yosemite in the Sierra foothills. I just found one of these narley little suckers laying dead on the street and wondered “what in the heck is this thing?” Well I got on the computer and found out it`s a Tarantula Hawk. I`m glad I didn`t get stung by this prehistoric looking tactical attack buzzard. Well, that may be taking it a little too far but man, this thing looks like it was made to do some damage. I suspect however, its probably more docile than it looks, unless you happen to be a tarantula. I wonder if there`s any money in breeding these things? lol

  25. zee says:

    Can they be found in Florida near the ocean…where tarantulas don’t exist?

  26. Sophie says:

    OMG! I just saw one in my yard yesterday and wondered what type of insect it was. My dog was chasing it around and really scared me. I had never seen one of these either. Now that I know what it is and how painful the sting, I will definitely stay away from it. Kudos to those of you who catch them. Thanks for the info!

  27. Mel says:

    I’ve killed two by stepping on them. Ugly things. Good to know they sting and that it hurts. Are they poisonous? What is the treatment if stung?

  28. Bass says:

    Tarantula Hawks are mostly found in the southwest (California through west Texas) and are harmless and not aggressive toward humans unless you provoke them. If you do happen to get stung, wash the area, apply an antibiotic ointment, ice it, take some acetaminophen or ibuprofen to cut down the pain and swelling, and keep an eye on it. If the swollen/red area gets larger than 8″ then you’re having an allergic reaction and need to get to a doctor. It’ll hurt like the dickens for anywhere between 3 minutes to an hour but the site may be sensitive for up to 4 days after being stung.

  29. Cheyenne says:

    I have been trying to figure out what chased my cousin and I in my backyard 20 years ago. It came out of nowhere we ran and got into the house before it caught up to us. Once we closed the sorry it was at window as if it was waiting for us. I have never forgotten about that, because it was one of the mode scariest moments…besides being chased by a tarantula when I was 4 years old. Thank you for sharing this.

  30. Olivia says:

    I just saw one of these in our parking lot in New Mexico. I work at a movie studio across from long stretch of desert plains. We have tarantulas that occasionally come into the parking lot, but I had never heard of an insect that eats them. I even got close to the tarantula hawk fascinated by its strange appearance. This world is always full of surprises! I just wonder if they only sting humans if humans are doing something to agitate them?

  31. Pat says:

    I caught one yesterday, I saw in coming in around sundown, also thought, is it a hugh fly, I only saw black first then the golden wings, so maybe a butterfly. But as it can in close, I moved (ran), checked it out and saw it digging a hole and then decided to catch it to investigate. It is a Tarantual Hawk Wasp in Spanish they call them the Cazador or the Hunter. Let him go this morning, but did take pictures! Beautiful and creepy at the same time.

  32. Adam says:

    I have lived in central California for 18 years now and I just saw my 1st one while weedwhacking. It was so large at first I thought it was a June bug (hanging legs thing) so I followed it and watched land near an abandoned gopher hole. That’s when I realized it was an enormous (3 inches)wasp. We have a lot of tarantulas on our property and road runners.


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