I’m a bug enthusiast and macro photographer, and I was recently fortunate enough to photograph a wasp fighting a tarantula. It felt like winning the lottery.
At the end of a rather dull and disappointing 4-day-long macro photography trip to a mountainous region in Israel, I was ready to pack up my stuff and head back to the city with almost nothing exciting written on my SD cards. It was only when I reached the gate of the countryside house where I was staying, right when the World Cup battle between Croatia and France began airing, that another clash of titans began taking place right next to me.
A rather strong and unusual rustle sound coming from the dry leaves caused me to turn my head, and for a few seconds, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. A massive, black furry tarantula spider, was wrestling one-on-one with a smaller, yet still quite large, wasp.
Now someone who is less of an insect geek would have probably placed his bet on the tarantula. It is larger, heavier, and beefier, and it has two fangs packed with venom for killing its prey. And yet, you’d be terribly wrong to think the black furry spider just wanted a wasp for launch. In fact, it was entirely the opposite. The wasp is the attacker here, and it’s called a tarantula hawk for a reason.
I stood there rather shocked at first, with my partners yelling at me in the background that the highly anticipated World Cup final had started, inviting me to come inside and watch it.
No way! Knowing this was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that time was running out, I decided to ignore their calls and switch over to combat mode, testing my unpacking skills like never before. Those were dramatic seconds: bag zippers were getting heavy pressure, lens caps flew in the air, flashguns, lenses, and some terribly cumbersome, horribly crafted DIY diffusers were mounted on my 2 camera bodies as if it were a medical emergency.
Once I was armed to the teeth, with a setup both for wide-angle shots and for some more extreme close-ups, I carefully got into position, opening my own front in this amazing battle. Shots were fired, and the intense action scene began unfolding right before my very viewfinder.
Utilizing its air superiority, the wasp managed to avoid all of the spider’s desperate bite attempts and delivered several incredibly fast and accurate stings. The tarantula hawk sting is considered among the most painful stings an insect can inflict. For us two-legged mammals, being stung by this flying hunter results in excruciating pain, but for a spider, it’s much worse: within a few seconds, our eight-legged furball friend found itself lying on its back, completely paralyzed with its legs folded.
Don’t be mistaken though, this spider wasn’t dying anytime soon, it was simply unable to move but still fully alive. More than that, the spider’s real nightmare had actually just begun…
After the wasp achieved an unmistakable triumph over the spider, she took off for a few quick peripheral flights — probably in order to make sure there were no competitors (or vengeful tarantula family members) around who could snatch the precious loot. She then came back, confident that the parameter was clear (aside from that huge humanoid lying flat on the ground with his Canon DSLR trying to pretend he is somewhat dead to avoid getting stung…).
After a quick location scout to a nearby dark space between two rocks, the wasp came back agile and determined more than ever, grasping the paralyzed bounty with her jaws, dragging it an impressive distance to that dark void she had just checked out.
At this point, I was only able to see a few hints of the tarantula’s legs. I left the two for a few minutes and when I came back, I couldn’t find any evidence they were ever there. However, the wasp probably took the spider to a burrow she had prepared before, and this is where it gets really bad and rather freaky for the spider.
You see, the female tarantula hawk was not hunting this arachnid for herself. When she needs energy, she settles for an easier food source that won’t fight her back: flower nectar…
For her offspring, though, it’s a completely different story. They need protein… and lots of it. Now it was time for the wasp to initiate phase 2 of her master plan. She will place the spider securely inside the burrow, and then lay a single egg on its body. Having done her part, she will get out and seal the exit to this “pit of paralyzed despair” she had created.
When the wasp larva hatches, it will chew its way inside the tarantula to enjoy an all-you-can-eat spider buffet. It will feed on the spider’s internal organs without disturbance, avoiding the vital ones as long as possible, keeping the spider alive for the entire time so that it remains fresh. Several weeks later, the larvae will pupate and emerge from the pupae as a fully grown adult tarantula hawk that’s ready to find its own tarantula and repeat this incredible cycle.
Sci-fi directors, take note: it turns out nature can be more extreme than your wildest imagination…
P.S. Earlier this year I shared how I let hundreds of mosquitoes bite me for the perfect mosquito photo.
About the author: Lior Kestenberg is a 21-year-old nature enthusiast and macro photographer based in Israel. His project “Space Invaders” aims to expose people and shed light on some of nature’s wildest, yet tiniest creatures, often hidden right under our noses. You can see more of his works on his Instagram account.