The Tarantula Hawk is a type of wasp with an excruciatingly painful sting that lasts only three minutes, but feels like a lifetime. The pain, rated four (highest) on the Schmidt sting pain index, is best described as “fiercely electric”. Bug experts and people who have been stung claim the pain is a lot like getting electrocuted. And the best strategy to deal with it is – get this – to lie down and start screaming!
According to a report in the Journal of the Kansas Entomology Society, “Tarantula hawks produce large quantities of venom and their stings produce immediate, intense, excruciating short term pain in envenomed humans.” The report adds that “the instantaneous pain of a tarantula hawk sting is the greatest recorded for any stinging insect,” but “the venom itself lacks meaningful vertebrate toxicity.” In other words, the wasp’s sting isn’t deadly, but it’s so painful that it’ll make you want to die.
Photo: Paul Nylander/bugman123
“There are some vivid descriptions of people getting hurt by these things,” says Ben Hutchins, invertebrate biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife. “Their recommendation – and this was actually in a peer-reviewed journal – was to just lie down and start screaming, because few if any people could maintain verbal and physical coordination after getting stung by one of these things. You’re likely to just run off and hurt yourself. So just lie down and start yelling.”
The paper that Hutchins talks about, recounts how one scientist netted 10 tarantula hawks, and foolishly reached in to grab them. “Undeterred after the first sting, he continued, receiving several more stings, until the pain was so great he lost all of them and crawled into a ditch and just bawled his eyes out,” the report explains.
A live account on Imgur from a person who was stung by the hawk called the pain ‘5 minutes of hell’. “Within half a second of being stung, the pain begun, and I dropped straight to the ground and started screaming my head off,” he wrote. “It was excruciating, all-encompassing – I lost the ability to think about anything else but the brutal, blinding pain wracking my body. I honestly thought this thing had killed me. The pain lasted for about 5 minutes (though it felt like eternity), for the duration of which I did nothing but lie in the fetal position and scream/wail/moan. It’s hard do describe the pain – I’ve never felt anything anywhere near the level these things dish out – but if I had to, I’d say it was like having all your blood suddenly turn to hydrofluoric acid acid while being electrocuted.
Interestingly, the female tarantula hawk is a parasite that attacks tarantulas, and is actually quite docile towards humans. It paralyzes the deadly spider, several times its size, with a single sting, and drags it into its den. There, it lays an egg that hatches into a larva and eats up the paralyzed, still alive spider over the course of several weeks.
“The tarantula hawks are really bold in terms of wasps,” Hutchins explained. “Researchers think that’s because they have very few natural predators. They have such an effective deterrent mechanism, and that’s their really painful sting.” So no living creature is actually dumb enough to provoke or attack it – a fact that the hawk seems keenly aware of. It’s a nectar feeder, not a carnivore, and the male hawks can’t even sting. So you don’t really stand a chance of being bitten by the fearless wasp, unless you do something incredibly stupid like that scientist above.
A human might be on the receiving end of the stinger from time to time, but the tarantula hawk is not really a threat. “Even though they do have a really painful sting, in my opinion they’re just a really cool component of our fauna,” Hutchins said. “People don’t really need to be afraid of them, and indeed I think they’re really cool to just sit and watch in your yard.”
But if you do get stung, you know the drill – stop, drop, and yell your lungs out!