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.
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.