Now here’s something buzzworthy for insect enthusiasts: before leaving its burrow each day, a ground wasp turns back toward home, loops in arcs around the nest, and gradually obtains height and distance before finally flying away.
Researchers writing their findings in the journal Current Biology recently captured these “learning flights” – and how the insects remember their way home – via a high-speed video.
Scientists had earlier determined that the wasps’ learning flights follow an outstandingly precise pattern to help them navigate their way back home post-foraging, and that they make highly similar maneuvers in return flights. However, it took 10 years to figure out how these creatures were able do it.
"Our findings tell us how wonderfully autonomous, flexible, and robust wasps are with their ability to know places in the world and shuttle back and forth between them," says study author Jochen Zeil from the Australian National University, adding that this is a fundamentally crucial skill among animals on the planet.
The team got the answers that eluded them for a decade by recreating a wasp’s eye view. They recorded the insects’ head orientation using high-speed cameras as well as via moving a panoramic imager along the paths flow by the wasps. The researchers built 3D models of the animals’ environment to render the various views inside the models.
The researchers were able to test their predictions on what wasps learn while on the learning flights by simulating the wasps’ return flights in virtual reality.
"While flying along these arcs, the insects see the nest environment from different directions and distances, and always keep the nest in their left or right visual field,” Zeil explained in an interview.
What the study revealed is that wasps, which have compound eyes capturing the world in low resolution and panoramic vision, create systematic sequence of views of the nest in their landscape.
The researchers seek to further explore how wasps’ homing relates to those of bees, ants, and other insects, and how these navigational capabilities develop during their lifetime. There are both social and solitary species of insects today.
Zeil noted, too, that the findings on the animals’ internal GPS system could be applied to flying robots for further testing of their validity.
Watch a wasp's "dance of learning" video.