Stung by a tarantula hawk? The advice I give in speaking engagements is to lie down and scream. The pain is so debilitating and excruciating that the victim is at risk of further injury by tripping in a hole or over an object in the path and then falling onto a cactus or into a barbed-wire fence. Such is the sting pain that almost nobody can maintain normal coordination or cognitive control to prevent accidental injury. Screaming is satisfying and helps reduce attention to the pain of the sting. Few, if any, people would be stung willingly by a tarantula hawk. I know of no examples of such bravery in the name of knowledge, for the reputation of spider wasps — specifically tarantula hawks — is well known within the biological community. All stings experienced occurred during a collector's enthusiasm in obtaining specimens and typically resulted in the stung person uttering an expletive, tossing the insect net into the air, and screaming. The pain is instantaneous, electrifying, excruciating, and totally debilitating.
The accompanying article is excerpted from Justin O. Schmidt's new book "The Sting of the Wild: The Story of the Man Who Got Stung for Science," published this spring by John's Hopkins University Press.
Howard Evans, the great naturalist and author of the classic book "Life on a Little Known Planet," was an expert on solitary wasps. Howard, a slight, reserved man with a shock of white hair and a sparkle in his eyes, was especially fond of tarantula hawks. Once, in his dedication to the investigation of these wasps, Howard netted perhaps 10 female tarantula hawks from a flower. He enthusiastically reached into the insect net to retrieve them and, undeterred after the first sting, continued, receiving several more stings, until the pain was so great he lost all of them and crawled into a ditch and just sobbed. Later, he remarked that he was too greedy.
I know of only two people who were "voluntarily" stung by tarantula hawks. I say "voluntarily" as both were performing their duties as part of documentary films, which, among other things, "encouraged" being stung. One was a young, handsome athletic entomologist who knew of the wasps. He deftly reached into the large cylindrical battery jar and grabbed a wasp by the wings. He had her in such a position that her sting harmlessly slid off his thumbnail. We prattled for a minute or so about tarantula hawks while the camera scanned close up to the long sting as it slid harmlessly, missing its mark. Then with a great heave the wasp pulled its abdomen back and thrust the sting under the nail. Yeee…ow (I can't recall if any expressions unsuitable for general audiences were uttered), the wasp was hurled into the air and flew off unharmed. One point for wasp, zero for human.
The other was a solidly built fellow who was apparently a master of performing pain-defying acts of bravery. For the film, I was charged with catching the wasp and delivering it to the scene. Five or six tarantula hawks were easily netted from flowers of an acacia tree; unfortunately, the net snagged on some thorns, and all but one wasp escaped. The remaining wasp appeared to be a male, so I summoned the cameraman to demonstrate how males cannot sting and are harmless. I reached in and casually grabbed "him." At this point, I realized that I was holding a "her." Yeee…ow, except this time it was me. I managed to toss her back in the net, while attempting to explain my blunder and pain on camera. As I was not in the film – perhaps fortunately – the footage was relegated to some obscure studio archive, perhaps someday to be resurrected on YouTube. That episode over, the tarantula hawk was delivered to the rightful actor. He grabbed her, was stung, and showed no reaction beyond a begrudging "Ouch, that did hurt a bit." I figured the guy had no nerves. But his director then handed him a habanero pepper, a tarantula hawk of chili peppers, which he enthusiastically bit into. He became instantly speechless, convinced fire was blasting from his mouth, nose, and ears. Apparently, he did have some nerves — sensitive at least to chili peppers.
How could such a small animal as a tarantula hawk be so memorable? Several years ago I attempted to address this question in a paper entitled "Venom and the Good Life in Tarantula Hawks: How to Eat, Not Be Eaten, and Live Long." The natural history of tarantula hawks provides some insights. Tarantula hawks are the largest members of the spider wasp family Pompilidae, a family some 5,000-species strong that prey solely on spiders. The feature of tarantula hawks that makes them so special is their choice of the largest of all spiders, the fierce and intimidating tarantulas, as their target prey. The old saying "you are what you eat" rings true for tarantula hawks: if you eat the largest spiders, you become the largest spider wasps. As with other spider wasps, the female wasp provides each young with only one spider that serves as breakfast, lunch, and dinner for its entire growing life.