Modeling and rendering by Wolfgang Stürzl

Video: How a wasp sees the world

A ground-nesting wasp makes a predictable maneuver every time she leaves home: She turns back to gaze at her nest, a hole the size of a pencil eraser on bare soil. Only then does she fly away in search of provisions, gaining height and distance in a series of ever larger arcs. Scientists call these maneuvers, which ground-nesting bees also perform, learning flights; they’ve known for more than 80 years that these trips follow a remarkably precise pattern, and that the wasps make nearly identical moves on their return journeys. Now, scientists report today in Current Biology that they’ve discovered what the wasps see during their learning flights, and how they use this information to find their way home. In Australia, the researchers recorded the learning flights and head position of individual wasps (Cerceris australis) with high-speed stereo cameras, and analyzed the insects’ flight paths frame by frame. Using these data, they reconstructed a wasp’s view of the world and her home. They used their model to simulate and test predictions about wasps’ homing flights. (Watch a simulated homing flight in the video above.) Their analysis shows that wasps take mental snapshots of their nest each time they make an arc above it, and tag these views with the direction to the nest. When they spot a familiar view on their way home, they move left or right depending on the direction associated with that view. Features on the ground, like the gray rock in the video, also help guide them to their nest. Understanding the wasps’ homing abilities, which far surpass anything humans currently build, may lead to smarter flying robots.