Face it: wasps are intelligent too

Polistes fuscatus - paper wasp

Nice antennae.

We humans like to congratulate ourselves on the many ways in which we’re ‘superior’ to other animals, but it seems like every week a new piece of research chips away at this idea. The most recent example that caught my eye was a paper in the journal Science showing that a species of wasp can recognise the faces of its fellow insects.

As some commenting scientists pointed out in last week’s Nature magazine, ‘the finding that a small-brained insect shares the ability to recognise faces with humans and other primates may come as a surprise’, especially if you think that this sort of intelligence requires a large brain. But should we really be shocked by this?

Anyone who’s interested in insects knows that they have some of the most complex social set-ups outside American high school movies. Termites, ants and wasps are all examples of insects that live in groups with amazingly complicated hierarchies.

This research shows how wasps can recognise the faces of others – useful in a species where the females fight each other for dominance of their shared nest. Facial recognition saves them having to repeat the same battles over and over again. As the researchers who carried out the study express it, ‘specialized cognition is surprisingly labile and may be adaptively shaped by species-specific selective pressures such as face recognition’.

Or to put it more simply, wasps are intelligent when it’s useful for them to be intelligent. I don’t think ‘surprising’ is the best word to use for this finding. It’s certainly interesting, because it suggests that abilities that were thought to be complex can be found in relatively ‘simple’ species.

But would it be so surprising if intelligence turns out to be just like any ability that evolves over time? If an organism acquires a useful skill, it will be more successful in its fight for survival, and more likely to pass on this skill to future generations. And the assumption that certain types of intelligence require a large brain seems to me to be lacking in evidence.

The whole concept of intelligence isn’t an easy one to define. There’s that urban myth about how immigrants to America who had never had the benefit of electricity were marked down in early intelligence tests because they couldn’t recognise a diagram of a light bulb. Intelligence is relative – if an animal can’t solve a problem it will never encounter, does that make it less intelligent? Or just well adapted to its environment?

And vice versa, if a wasp will benefit from recognising its neighbours, why should we be surprised that it can? This is my favourite kind of research because it challenges some quite deep assumptions about humans and animals – ones that I think are increasingly hard to justify.

It’s easy for humans to see the benefits of human intelligence, but much harder for us to understand another species’ point of view. If intelligence is a way to solve important problems, then every species that isn’t extinct has clearly found its own brand of cleverness that has successfully kept it alive.

As the scientists commenting on this research in Nature conclude, the advantages of bigger brains ‘might relate to higher memory storage capacity (equivalent to bigger hard drives rather than better processors)’. Bigger isn’t always better, and some might think that a wasp doing so much with a small brain is working its assets far more intelligently than a large bald ape with a superiority complex.

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3 Responses to “Face it: wasps are intelligent too”

  1. the other wasp whisperer Says:

    I have a great interest in all winged critters with stingers since 1960. That was the year I stepped on a bee in the grass with bare feet as a small child. She got me good. Hurt like hell. I then became obsessed wanting to learn everything I could about them. I don’t have an entimological degree but I might as welI have one. Who els does the shit I do? Scientists. I recently uploaded a silly video called, “The other wasp whisperer”, on u-tube. Feel free to check it out. I know these animals are intelligent. They (wasps) live in a collective society. They not only recognize each other, but they recognize me and my car. I rescue them trapped in the house trying to escape through a window. When I scoop them up with my bare hand in the window, with a little honey to calm them, they don’t sting me even when I cup my hand around them to put them outside, but cling tightly to me for dear life, and lick up the honey in my hand. Even when I open my hand outside, they just sit on my hand. I have to literally throw them up in the air to get them off my hand. They fly around my car when I come home and follow me around the yard, knowing i have sweet treats for them. When working in the garden, I wear a ball cap with honey smeared all over it. I’m the most popular landing pad in the garden. They walk on my face, arms, clothes. I have to be careful not to accidently squish them as I’m going about my buisness in the yard. I visit their nests with sweet treats of honey or jam/jelly and they welcom my gifts. They are free to forage in my garden and rid my garden of unwanted pests. Sometimes they even eat my beloved garden spiders, or steal the bugs trapped in the webs. I wish they wouldn’t do that, but, oh well. I rented a tree house bungalo a few years ago and had a 25 gallon fish tank outside, housing my beloved and beautiful fancy goldfish. I constructed a bio filter that had a waterfall that honeybees loved to refresh at. (not yet uploaded to u-tube, but will eventually). My landlord told me that a huge honeybee hive was constructed on the overhang gable, porch roof right next to the front door. I had to make a special trip to see it, and spend a week on the property for science sake. I got amazing pics of the honeybee mega hive. The occupants split during a ritual queen mating ritual in the fall and took half the colony, leaving much of the honeycomb bare and exposed. It was a hard cold winter this past december of 2015. I found many workers, drones, (boy bees) and dead larvae on the porch. Many workers in the driveway and sidewalks, barely hanging on to life from the overnight freeze. Holding them in my warm hands with a thin film of honey and pollen, (purchased from the local market) on my skin, I was able to revive some of the workers with it, and put them back on the wax comb base of the hive or the beems that the comb was anchored to. As my revived little babies slowly crawlled back up to the hive, I saw many bees in the hive slowly crawl down onto the support beam of the porch with great curiosity and then welcome back my little babies that fell from the hard freeze. The entire hive became very still and all turned to face me for a brief moment, then went back to their business. Where the hell are the national geographic photographers when you need them? Shit man, I can stick my bare hand into a bald faced hornets nest, covered with honey, and pull it out covered with hornets licking me to death. People hire me to completely remove nests from buildings before they are to be painted. Not one single occupant is harmed, nor me. How do I do it? Trade secret, can’t tell ya. Could be easily abused to kill them. I then release them in the wild to find their way. I’m so fucking cool.

  2. the other wasp whisperer Says:

    hey, it’s me again, the other wasp whisperer. would someone please advise me as to how i can edit my blog. i got to thinking that little kids might read this and parents might be offended by my sailor talk. (sorry mom!) i searched the site here and found no way to edit my comment, (some mis-spelled words too.) i’m sure there is, but it eludes me. it’s not quite like editing comments on utube. i found that i could get live chat if i paid for it. well, i hope someone contacts me and helps me edit my blog or, oh well, the sailor talk stays. thanks, and BTW, the wasps that i got to walk on my hand from under the plywood, at the onset of the utube vid, were in texas north of dallas. they were whoppers. huge animals. they were too large for me to justifiably call an insect and big enough to name.
    i could feel the weight of their huge bodies as they walked on me. it’s always an adrenaline rush for me, playing with whinged critters that can sting me to death but never do, cuz they all react to me like little kids running out to greet the ice cream truck. it’s crazy fun! i love it. while most people swish them away, go for the fly swatter, soap water, or can of raid, i reach for the honey bottle in my pocket, (i never leave home without it.), and get them to land on me, hang out with me a while, and make a new friend.. hahahaha. ;-] i’m so wierd.

  3. the other wasp whisperer Says:

    one last note. since i can’t edit my blog yet, i’ll have to amend to it. africanized bees are unpredictable and dangerous. i was employed by the county of riverside some years back, and we had a wild africanized hive living in an old dead limb of a huge tree on the property next to the employee parking lot. some employees were dong some trenching to install utility cables close to the tree and stirred up the hive from the vibration made by the equipment. everyone was getting attacked including me. we had to have exterminators come out and kill the hive. thanks to researchers that only smelled the money decades ago, we now have an uncontrollable menace in the world that can’t be stopped. ever. time to invest in a bee suit and keep it in the trunk of my car i guess. the mild mannered hive where i used to live seems to be of the european strain and docile, but that can change overnight. at present, i can walk under it, go in and out the door, up and down the steps without issue. sad if that changes. mild natured honey bees can get crazy too during the mating dance swarm, so bee careful y’all.

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