By Alisha Brewer

Fall is in the air and Halloween is right around the corner, which means that it is time for spooky movies! I know this time of year so many of us like to indulge in watching bathroom doors being chopped down with axes, bloody prom queens, terrifying hockey masks, creepy kids crawling out of wells, and of course, disturbing clowns with big red balloons.

I think one of the most iconic scary movie scenes would have to be from Alien. The one and only ‘chestburster’ scene. The whole crew is gathered around enjoying a celebratory meal and then the mood quickly changes. One of the crewmates starts to cough, struggle and scream. The rest of the crew can only watch in horror as they learn that an alien inside his body has finished using him as a host and is breaking through his ribcage to freedom. A jaw dropping demise for our crewmate. The scene is grotesque and frightening, but it all goes away with the click of a button. For us, it is just a movie. But, what if I told you that this is a real life nightmare for one of our desert critters? This scene plays out, likely in your own backyard, for your neighborhood tarantulas. Our tarantula friends are paralized during the process, so we are unable to hear them scream, even if they wanted to.

The fearful villain of this story is none other than, the tarantula hawk wasp. (Using the word villain, maybe isn’t quite fair as the wasps are just doing what they were born to do…survive). Here are the gruesome details.

Tarantula hawk wasps are of the largest wasp species, coming in around 2 inches in length. They are an iridescent midnight blue color with burnt orange wings. They are easy to spot, especially when flying. The adults feed on flowers, especially those of mesquite trees. It’s their children that have a more voracious appetite, but we’ll get to that in a sec.

Tarantula hawk wasps are terrifying for two big reasons. First, females have a stinger that is not to be messed with. According to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a sting from a tarantula hawk wasp is the most painful sting in all of North America. It has the second most painful sting on the entire planet! It is second only to the bullet ant of South America. The pain from the sting has been described as, “instantaneous, electrifying, excruciating, totally debilitating and the only response is to lay down and scream”. Luckily, the wasps aren’t at all interested in humans and have actually been described as docile towards people. Typically, if a person gets stung it is because they accidentally stepped on one or they tried to pick one up or engage with it. (Don’t do that) What the wasps are after are tarantulas. Which brings me to terrifying fact number two.

Female wasps hunt tarantulas. This is the part that keeps tarantulas up at night. The wasps will crawl all over the ground searching for tarantula burrows. The wasp will coax the tarantula out of their den by disturbing the webbing on the entrance. The wasp will then attack. The tarantula will try at all costs to escape or fight. Unfortunately, once a wasp has started its attack, it rarely loses. When the wasp stings the tarantula, it injects a venom that paralyzes it (and it will remain that way for the rest of its life). Though paralized, the tarantula is still very much alive, which is exactly what the wasp wants. The wasp will then drag, yes, literally pick up the legs and drag the tarantula back into its own den. Once there, the wasp will lay a single egg on the tarantula. It will then seal the entrance to the den, solidifying the spider’s demise. Her nursery is set. The feast is about to begin.

Once the egg hatches, the larva will burrow into the abdomen of the still living spider. Once inside, the larva starts by ingesting the liquids of the spider and will then move to the tissue. The larva is careful not to ingest any vital organs, an act that keeps the incapacitated spider alive for as long as possible. A few weeks later, in an eerily similar manner, the newly formed wasp will emerge from the spider much like the alien from the crewmate’s chest. Luckily, for this moment, the tarantula has perished.

So keep your eyes open this Halloween. Hopefully, if you catch something flying across the sky it is just a witch on her way to conjure up some trouble. If you see something crawling quickly across the ground, I hope it’s just one of those creepy well kids. If your stomach starts to churn, I hope it’s just one too many candy bars. As we know, what starts as indigestion can lead to a most unpleasant surprise.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Alisha Brewer is a veteran zoo keeper of nearly 15 years. U of A alum. Boy mom, veggie dog connoisseur, anti Oxford comma and eternal optimist. Alisha hopes to connect residents to the incredible creatures that surround us.

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