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We know them from their stings, but wasps also display sophisticated intelligence, even the use of facial recognition.

Most people haven’t the time or interest to stay abreast of current trends in insect research.

This is even more true for wasps, who tend to be labeled as public enemies when found around homes or businesses. In the past few years there have been some pretty interesting studies regarding social wasps and the way they interact with each other. I’ll try and sum them up quickly in an effort to change the way you might think about these important animals.

Wasps are pound for pound some of the most effective predators to have ever existed. Most are highly specialized to hunt specific prey, instinctively knowing the weak spots in their heavily armored targets. Most social wasps, on the other hand, are what’s known as generalist predators.

This basically means that if they want, they can and will eat any other insect they come across. In a garden, these are mostly caterpillars and other animals that are feeding on your plants. Wasps are very good hunters, and are believed to account for about 50 percent of all insect-on-insect predation 

A recent study in Brazil found that introducing social wasps into corn and sugarcane fields reduced pest populations and plant damage significantly. As the pests tried to burrow into plants to avoid predation, they found that no place was safe, as wasps were documented pulling them from their burrows.

Many social wasps live in nests numbering 50 to a few hundred, with some species like yellowjackets having larger nests housing thousands. Scientists believe wasps to be the evolutionary ancestors of bees, and their social gatherings tend to be run very differently than those of say the honey bee.

Many social bees rely on chemicals distributed throughout the hive to pacify the whole. Wasps don’t appear to rely on these subtle controls, and instead queens physically intimidate their nestmates into working for them. In some cases, bullied wasps’ ovaries are suppressed by this fighting alone, while in other cases nests are home to multiple queens who loosely work together. Studies have found that a queen only has to show she’s top wasp to a few individuals for the group to take notice.

In fact, recent research has found that if a wasp sees a nestmate lose a fight, that wasp will remember who was the victor and loser and will treat each accordingly. This shows that they are able to make inferences based on what they see, a feat previously undocumented in insects.

Wasps have been found to have powerful forms of identification between themselves as well. Most social wasps have specific outer coatings that help them repel fungal and other assaults. These coverings seem to be different between colonies and are used as ID tags. Wasps have also been found able to recognize the faces of their nestmates.

Scientists believe this trait was developed relatively recently, perhaps in the last ten thousand years or so. Facial recognition is believed to be extremely rare among insects, and would only develop under the extreme need to rapidly and effectively identify nestmates among other wasps.

What this probably means is that wasps have gotten so good at hunting, reproducing and surviving, that in the last few thousand years one of their largest competitors was simply other wasps. Further studies on wasp brains has actually revealed that if these social animals are isolated from each other, the areas of their brain associated with facial recognition rapidly shrink and change. This research could help illuminate how and why primitive brains began developing higher functions, and how social interactions can be influential to proper development in some species.

In the meantime, try and leave your local garden brainiacs alone when possible.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.