Wasps employ facial recognition to defend nests

David Baracchi

Wasps employ facial recognition to defend nests

To prevent their hives from being attacked by invaders, wasps must quickly distinguish friend from foe. They typically do this by sniffing out foreigners, as outsiders tend to have a different scent than the home colony. Now researchers have discovered that, like a few other wasp species, a tiny social wasp (Liostenogaster flavolineata) from Malaysia employs an additional security measure: facial recognition. The wasps’ nests are typically found in large aggregations with as many as 150 built close together, and each colony faces persistent landing attempts by outsiders from these other nests. To find out why and how these wasps employ both vision and scent to determine if an incoming wasp is a comrade, scientists carried out a series of experiments on 50 colonies (see photo above) in the wild. Close to the nests, the researchers dangled lures made of captured and killed wasps. The lures had been given different treatments. For instance, some lures made from nest mates were coated with a foe’s scent, whereas outsiders were painted with the colony’s odor. The wasps, it turns out, pay more attention to facial markings than to scent when faced with a possible intruder, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Indeed, in tests where the wasps could assess both an intruder’s face and scent, they relied solely on facial recognition and immediately attacked those whose faces they didn’t know, ignoring their odor. That’s the safest strategy, the scientists note, because the wasps can recognize another’s face at a distance, but need to actually touch another wasp to detect her scent—not a bad ploy for a tiny-brained insect.

(Linked photo credit: David Baracchi)

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