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Most insects can't recognize individual faces, but these wasps can

You may be forgiven for not having spent much time gazing into the eyes of a wasp. After all, we’re generally more concerned with the stinging bit housed in the insect’s other end.

But when you do take a break from shooing them away, you might be surprised by the beauty of a wasp. Particularly when it comes to that striking face, with features seemingly painted on. And those enormous, dreamy eyes.

Don’t believe us? Take a gander at some of the specimens collected by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. (Yes, they track wasps too.)

A close-up of a vespid wasp. How could anyone forget this face? It belongs to a vespid wasp spotted in Kruger National Park. (Photo: Erick Hernandez/USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)

Wasps certainly offer some bewitching symmetry.

In fact, one wasp species in particular — the northern paper wasp or Polistes fuscatus — has evolved the ability to not only appreciate another wasp’s face, but to recognize it in a crowd.

In a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Cornell University team suggests wasps use facial recognition to work better together.

It’s a relatively newly acquired evolutionary trait, marking yet another step forward for wasp intelligence. And for now, it makes the northern paper wasp one of only a few insects that can spot a face in the crowd.

“The really surprising conclusion here is that the most intense selection pressures in the recent history of these wasps has not been dealing with climate, catching food or parasites but getting better at dealing with each other,” senior author Michael Sheehan, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell notes in a press release. “That’s pretty profound.”

Indeed, being able to know a fellow creatures strictly by face has long been the (mostly) exclusive domain of vertebrates. Goats, for example, are great with faces. Humans are okay at it, too.

But Cornell researchers say the northern paper wasp is a keen learner. By analyzing genetic variations within the species, they deduced when exactly they evolved this talent — and, perhaps, more importantly, the reason why.

Apparently, it’s not so they could gaze into their partner’s starry eyes and write sweet poetry. Rather, in keeping with traditional wasp sensibilities, it’s to make them better, more efficient workers.

As the researchers note, the few insects that recognize faces — bees are pretty good at it — happen to live in communal societies, often serving under several queens. They have strictly delineated hierarchies. Everyone serves a precise function, and everyone works for the betterment of the colony.

Paper wasp colonies can host as many as seven queens. One ruler may not be able to unite all seven kingdoms, but by being able to recognize another queen based on her face may go a long way toward respecting borders.

In fact, the research teams suggests facial recognition helps queens negotiate with one another.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the research is how fast evolutionary intelligence takes the leap it needs to serve the needs of a species. There was nothing slow and steady about how paper wasps acquired this trait. More like a flying evolutionary leap.

“Our finding indicated that cognitive evolution is not necessarily incremental,” Sheehan explains. “There are mutations happening that cause big shifts. This suggests the possibility that rapid adaptation of cognitive ability could have been important in other species as well, like language in humans.”