Your reaction to wasps probably consists of mild panic over a possible sting, followed by a quick escape indoors and concern over whether a nest is taking up residence on your property. New research into their behavioral processes may not minimize that reaction, but it could give you some newfound respect for these winged wonders. They're not only smart, but they might even be better at deducing logic than some humans.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in the journal Royal Society Biology Letters took 40 wasps (of the Polistes dominula and Polistes metricus species) and put each one of them into a rectangular container that featured one of five different colors at each end. Each color was labeled from A to E, though that was more to assign the colors a hierarchy for the human observers.
Researchers attempted to educate the wasps on the sequence of colors, with boxes labeled A and B, B and C, C and D, and D and E. An electric shock was housed under the later letter of the alphabet in each pair. If a container had colors labeled B and C, for example, the shock would be under the C. In this way, the wasps learned which color was "better." Blue was better than green, and green was better than purple. But could the wasps understand blue was better than purple?
To find out, the wasps were then placed in containers with colors marked B and D and A and E. In order to avoid getting a shock, the wasps would have to understand a color higher up in the letter ranking was associated with the shock. Over 65 percent chose B over D, better than chance, and A over E. (The latter was an easier decision, as E always delivered a jolt.)
This kind of reasoning is known as transitive inference, or the ability to take two separate bits of information and draw conclusions. The wasps knew B delivered a shock over A, and that D delivered one over C, but not that D delivered one over B. They had to extrapolate that based on independent experience.
The report is said to be the first indication invertebrates can use logical deduction. It might be related to the wasp hierarchy, where the insects are confronted with figuring out who holds dominant roles in their society.
This isn't the first time wasps have impressed scientists, either. An earlier study showed that they can identify facial patterns in other wasps, and recognize them during subsequent encounters.
[h/t New Scientist]