There is more to wasps than their sting. Scientists have uncovered the secret to the homing mechanism used in their orientation flights.

Until now, no one knew what information wasps used in their orientation flights or how they used that information. Professor Jochen Zeil and colleagues at the Australian National University’s School of Biology published their field study, the first to reconstruct what a homing insect in the field sees, in the journal, Current Biology.

The scientists used two high-speed cameras to record the orientation flight of the female ground-nesting wasp, Cerceris australis. They captured the three-dimensional path traveled by the wasp and the direction it was looking at the time.

Dr. Zeil says,

In a way, we were seeing in the cockpit of this animal while it was learning how the scene looks like around the nest on departure.

When wasps leave the nest, they fly backwards away from the nest in a zigzag pattern, getting higher and farther away to produce “snapshots” of the landscape surrounding it so they can find their way back. Between the wasp’s compound eyes that see the world in low resolution and panoramic vision and their flight path information, scientists were able to reconstruct what the wasp experiences during an orientation flight.

wasp learn way home
A Wasp Finding Her Way Home

Dr. Zeil adds,

It’s a bit like when you leave a hotel in an unfamiliar environment. To make sure you can recognize it when you come back, you turn back as you are leaving it.

The scientist proved their hypothesis to be correct when they were able to predict the movements of wasps returning to their nest and by testing it, using computer models where virtual wasps could be “brought home” by programming orientation data from real wasps.

The goal is to one day use this research to develop miniaturized, autonomously-navigating robots/drones that could find their way home without human intervention.

Wasps are more than just angry pests. They are actually smarter than some humans, who always get lost and and can't seem to find their way home ...

Nancy Loyan Schuemann

Nancy Loyan Schuemann is a writer specializing in architecture, safes, profiles, histories and a multi-published fiction and non-fiction author and is Nailah, Middle Eastern dancer.

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