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State Insect of New Mexico Lesson: The Tarantula Hawk Wasp

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The tarantula hawk wasp

The tarantula hawk wasp

New Mexico's State Insect: Information for Teachers and Students

New Mexico's state insect is the amazing tarantula hawk wasp. It was designated in 1989 and is the only wasp to be designated a state insect. This article provides essential information about this fascinating insect, and its equally fascinating prey, the enormous tarantula spider.

The Tarantula Hawk's Scientific Name

New Mexico's state insect is one of the largest wasps in North America, which makes sense when you consider that their prey is hands-down the largest spider in North America. The tarantula hawk wasp belongs to the order Hymenoptera, which includes not only all bees and wasps but all ants as well. Within that huge group, the tarantula hawk belongs to the genus Pepsis. This is something like your last name -- it shows you belong to a closely related group, but within that group are individual species. The tarantula hawk is actually several species, but the one that is the state insect of New Mexico is formosa. Hence, the insect's full scientific name is Pepsis formosa. Scientific names are always in italics, by the way, because they are derived from Latin.

As a middle school teacher myself, I wrote this guide to be useful for both students and teachers. It's a great place to start for research ideas and science fair projects!

How Elementary Students Chose New Mexico's State Insect

In 1989, students in an elementary school in Edgewood, New Mexico were doing some research on state insects. They looked at those states that had already chosen their state symbols, then chose three possible candidates. This led to the entire class being present for a legislative hearing in the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. The end result was the adoption of the tarantula hawk wasp as the state insect of New Mexico.



How the Tarantula Hawk Kills

These huge wasps (one of the largest wasps in the United States - up to two inches long) feed on nectar from flowers, but feed their offspring in a particularly morbid fashion (the basis for their name). When a female is ready to lay her eggs, she seeks out a tarantula and injects it with paralyzing venom. She drags the tarantula into a burrow and stuffs it down the hole, then lays her eggs on top of the paralyzed spider. Several days later the eggs hatch and the larvae feed on the still-living tarantula.

Clash of the titans

Clash of the titans

The Tarantula Hawk: Life Cycle and Natural History

The tarantula hawk has a fascinating life cycle. The adult female, which is even larger than the male, hunts for giant tarantula spiders on the desert floor. When she finds one, the fight is on -- the spider defends itself with a vicious bite and poisonous spines that it can fling at an attacker. The wasp possesses a giant, sharp singer and the most potent poison of any insect on the planet. These two wild animals will circle each other, trying to find an advantage -- sometimes the tarantula drives the wasp off, and sometimes the wasp is able to pierce the tough skin of the tarantula with her stinger. When that happens, the tarantula is almost immediately paralyzed.

At this point, the wasp drags the tarantula to its burrow in the ground. There she lays a single egg on the spider's body -- it's still alive -- and seals up the burrow, leaving the spider to its fate. After a few days, a small maggot, the wasp's larval form, hatches out of the egg. The maggot has sharp jaws, and it begins eating the tarantula from the inside out. It's careful to eat only fat deposits and non-essential organs, in order to keep the spider alive for as long as possible.

When the spider is consumed, and the larva is about the size of your little finger, the larva transforms into an adult wasp. It crawls to the end of the burrow, digs out, and flies away, to search for more tarantulas

Complete Metamorphosis

"Complete metamorphosis" is the term used to describe the life cycle of insects that go through a four-stage sequence of forms. The most familiar example is butterflies, which go through four familiar stages -- egg-larva-cocoon/chrysalis-adult. Dragonflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles, and many other insects also go through complete metamorphosis. Like butterflies, they all have larvae and all of the other developmental stages.

The tarantula hawk wasp, like a butterlfy, goes through four distinct phases – this shows the evolutionary relationship between these two otherwise very differenct groups.

Complete metamorphosis of a typical social wasp species

Complete metamorphosis of a typical social wasp species

Where Can You Find Tarantula Hawks?

The tarantula hawk wasp occurs in New Mexico, of course, but also throughout the American Southwest. There are several species; the group of wasps that hunt spiders is very large and occurs across North America and throughout the world.

My Encounter With the State Insect of New Mexico

The first time I saw a tarantula hawk was in Arizona, on a dusty road in the bright hot sunshine of a summer afternoon. It was flying in a straight line across the road, and my first instinct was to run. The tarantula hawk is a wasp as large as a small bird, with the most painful sting of any insect. It confronts and overpowers gigantic, venomous tarantula spiders, then drags them back to its burrow and plants an egg that will become a parasitic larva. This is a serious bug!

I followed the gigantic wasp as far as I could, and it landed on the ground. Flicking its cool blue/black-and-orange wings, the wasp crawled over the sandy ground, searching for prey. These wasps are truly huge and beautiful, and if you ever see one, count yourself lucky.


The following sources were used for this guide: