Spider Wasp – A Killer at Killdeer Plains!

Tickseed Sunflower Panorama, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, Wyandot County, Ohio

The photo above was taken last weekend, when I visited Big Island Wildlife Area near Marion and Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, which is only a 20-minute drive north of Big Island WA in Wyandot County, Ohio. I was hoping to find and photograph some roadside displays of goldenrod and other late summer wildflowers at their peak of bloom in early to mid-September. There were few wildflowers at Big Island WA, but my luck changed at Killdeer Plains, where a field of Tickseed Sunflowers, Bidens aristosa, extended to the horizon.

A few minutes later, I pulled into a parking area near one of the many ponds at Killdeer Plains and walked over to the shoreline to scan the water for birds and other resident wildlife. An osprey landed on a distant dead tree, and a pair of adult Trumpeter Swans, which breed at Killdeer Plains, patrolled the far side of the pond with two sooty gray cygnets.    

A spider wasp, Entypus fulvicornis, drags a paralyzed wolf spider, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area

While walking back to my vehicle I noticed a large wasp, jet black with slender orange antennae, dragging a wolf spider through the grasses. I was carrying my Nikon D500 camera and a 100-400mm lens, and over the next fifteen minutes I took dozens of images as the spider wasp dragged the wolf spider, which she had paralyzed with a sting, backward through the maze of grass blades, plant stems, and other debris which must have seemed like an  assault course to the wasp. The wolf spider was bigger than the spider wasp, which on  numerous occasions had to lift the body of the spider to surmount grass stems and other obstacles, as shown in the photo below.     

Spider wasp lifting wolf spider over grasses, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area

Eric Eaton and Kenn Kaufman describe Spider Wasps as “solitary, high-strung hunters” in their excellent book, the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. The female spider wasp paralyzes a spider with its sting, then stashes the hapless spider in a cavity or mud cell as food for a single offspring. When the wasp egg hatches, the larva feeds on the body of the still living spider, carefully avoiding the heart and other vital organs to ensure enough food until the larva pupates for the winter, then emerges in the spring as an adult spider wasp.

There are about 290 species of spider wasps in North America, including 14 species of Pepsis, which include the famous “tarantula hawks” of the southern United States that prey on tarantula spiders. Check out Youtube for several videos which showcase the epic battles between a Pepsis spider wasp and her enormous arachnid adversary. I believe that the spider wasp shown in my photographs is in the genus Entypus, probably Entypus fulvicornis, which has an all-black body with slender, orange antennae.

Spider wasp dragging wolf spider underground

The photo above was the last image I took before the spider wasp dragged the helpless body of the wolf spider underground, where the female Entypus spider wasp had already constructed five to ten mud cells, each of which would be provisioned with the living body of a wolf spider.

During my photo session, the female spider wasp dragged the body of the wolf spider 50-60 feet across the ground en route to her underground nesting site. From time to time she would release her grip on the spider, buzz around in the area for a few seconds to stretch her wings, then land on the ground and relocate the wolf spider before continuing her hauling labors for a few more feet. I was careful to avoid getting too close, because I didn’t want to experience the powerful sting possessed by the spider wasp. 

How painful is a spider wasp sting?   

The entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, shown in the photo above on the right, has spent many years studying (and experiencing!) insect stings, and is the author of a book, The Sting of the Wild, available from Amazon.com. Dr. Schmidt is also the developer of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which is a pain scale rating the relative discomfort caused by the sting of wasps, bees, and ants. The scale starts at 0, for stings that are ineffective against humans, and includes common bee and wasp stings, which are rated as 2. The scale finishes at 4 for the most painful stings, which in the original index included only the bullet ant, Paraponera clavata, whose sting produces “immediate, excruciating pain.” Later, tarantula hawk spider wasps were added to the ranking of 4 – their sting is described as “blinding, fierce, and shockingly electric.” I was glad that my 100-400mm lens allowed me to photograph the spider wasp from a respectful distance, as I had no wish to provoke a sting!   

Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area is a great birding destination, and also provides habitat for rare reptiles like the Plains Garter Snake and its venomous cousin, the diminutive Massasauga Rattlesnake. More information on Killdeer Plains and Big Island Wildlife Areas is included in my book, A Photographer’s Guide to Ohio – Volume 2.                           




This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hello Ian,

    I contacted you last year regarding permission to use one of your Entypus fulvicornis photographs in our research paper. A written record of the event has been so noted in our paper, along with 25 pages of other pompilid wasps and their associated spider hosts, and now I am tasked with assembling two color plates, with six photos per plate, to illustrate some of the Western Hemisphere pompilid and host diversity. We would like to ask your permission to use your photo, with proper credit given to you both in the caption and in Acknowledgments. If you don’t wish to allow this, I will simply move on to other choices. If you do allow us to use your photo, in addition, I would send you a copy of the pdf when it’s published.

    All the best, Rick
    (Sooke, BC, Canada)

  2. Hi Rick,

    My apologies for the later reply to your request. You are welcome to use my Entypus fulvicornis photograph in your research paper, at no cost.
    Let me know if you need a high-res version of the photo, and if I can help further in any way.


    Ian Adams

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