Inside a wasp s head: Here s what it sees to find its way home

How do wasps navigate

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By Sandrine Ceurstemont

Step behind the eyes of a wasp. These reconstructions of how the insects see the world are revealing how they find their way home.

Wasps have low-resolution vision, so they rely on visual cues and a photographic memory for navigation. Every morning, they embark on information-gathering missions when they first leave their nests to help guide them home later, but what they learn about their environment has been a mystery.

To try and figure this out, Jochen Zeil of the Australian National University in Canberra and his team used high-speed cameras to track the head movements of ground-nesting wasps (Cerceris australis) during these flights.

The camera views allowed the team to monitor changes in a wasp’s gaze and recreate its flight path and what it sees. This enabled them to build virtual 3D models of their panoramic views. “We knew that the insects perfectly control the orientation of their heads,” says Zeil.


When wasps leave their nest, they turn to face the entrance rather than their destination. They then fly in a semicircle in front of it while watching the entrance and quickly looking from side to side, and gradually back away by moving along increasingly wide arcs (see video).

This behaviour may help them to remember features on the ground, such as distinctive stones or fallen leaves, so they can find the direction of their nest when they return close to home. “We were surprised by how precise the choreography of learning flights was,” says Zeil.

On their way back, using views they have learned, the wasps can predict whether they need to head to the left or right to reach their nest.

Homing insects

Zeil suspects that the strategies they use could apply to other insects. “We rely on the ability of insects to find their way around, for example, for pollination or to produce honey, but we are just beginning to understand what makes them so competent,” he says.

Reconstructing a wasp’s-eye view of their natural environment is a major step forward, says Paul Graham of the University of Sussex, UK, who studies how ants use vision for navigation.

“What has eluded us is an understanding of how the learning flight relates to subsequent navigation,” he says. “Zeil and his team were able to evaluate the information available to the wasp at all points during the learning flight and the return journey.”

Next, the team hopes to record wasp flights and views over a much wider area around their nests, and monitor how their homing abilities develop during their lifetime.

A bug’s-eye view: How do wasps find their way back home?

Wasps take distinctive test flights before leaving their nest for the day, identifying visual cues along the way that will lead them back home after a day of foraging.

February 13, 2016

By using high speed cameras to study the flight paths of ground-nesting wasps, researchers have identified techniques the insects use to navigate back to their nests after a day of foraging.

Wasps, like several other insects, like to take “test flights” before they leave their nests to ensure that they will remember the nest location when they return. Wasps have low-resolution vision, so they must identify distinctive features around their nests, such as stones or fallen leaves, to find their way home.

Scientists knew that they did this, but they didn’t know how. A team led by Jochen Zeil, an insect expert at the Australian National University in Canberra, used high-speed cameras to track the head movements and body position of wasps performing these test flights. They also built a 3D model to map their flight pattern. Dr. Zeil and his team described their findings in a paper published in the journal Current Biology on February 11.

The researchers saw that when wasps leave their nest, they turn around to face the entrance rather than facing out towards their destination. They fly in front of the nest in an arc, while watching the entrance and shifting their gaze from side to side. Then the wasps back away in increasingly wider arcs. The resulting path zigs and zags back and forth.

“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 told LiveScience in an e-mail.

Name that animal!

By memorizing scene markers from various angles, the wasps are able to navigate their way back to the nest no matter where their foraging takes them.

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“We were surprised by how precise the choreography of learning flights was,” Zeil told New Scientist.

This could apply to other nesting insects like bees and ants, theorize the researchers, and could also help improve navigation capabilities of flying robots.

Flying lessons: Scientists show world through a wasp’s eyes (V > Published time: 13 Feb, 2016 12:55 Edited time: 23 Feb, 2018 12:41

Researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra managed to record wasps’ flight and the direction of their gaze using high-speed stereo cameras and reconstruct what the insects see, using 3D models and a panoramic imager. The results of their study were published in Cell Press journal Current Biology on February 11.

It has long been known by scientists that insects tend to carry out special orientation flights before going on a long-distance journey. In other words, they capture snapshots which allow them to come back home. However, until recently, scientists weren’t able to explain what actually occurred during these “learning flights.”
Jochen Zeil, co-author of the report, and his colleagues learned that wasps not only fly backward but also move in a zigzag pattern of arcs around the nest. Before gaining height and distance, their attention is always focused on their nest.

“They look back at the nest from the viewpoint of their future return,” he said.
“It’s a bit like when you leave a hotel in an unfamiliar environment. To make sure you recognize it when you come back, you turn back as you are leaving it.”

Wasps’ compound eyes make it possible for them to capture the world in low-res and panoramic vision. Using this knowledge and the flight path data, researchers managed to reconstruct what wasps saw during their “learning flights.”

The researchers had a hypothesis that a wasp would produce a series of views of the nest in its landscape and use them to decide which direction to fly on their way back home. The scientists proved their theory correct by successfully predicting the movements of wasps coming back to their nest.
“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,” Zeil said.

“I was especially surprised by how long it took us to find the right way of looking at what the wasps were doing,” he says. “It took us over 10 years!”

They analyzed the orientation flight data of real wasps and found that a virtual one would be able to come back home if programmed with this information.

“Wasps move along arcs centered on the nest entrance, whereby rapid changes in gaze assure that the nest is seen at lateral positions in the left or the right visual field,” the scientists said in their report.

The research could be useful in the future development of self-navigating robots, the researchers said.
“It will be interesting to implement the learning and homing rules we found into flying robots to test the validity and limits of our findings,” Zeil said.
“We want to understand what trick the insects are using to acquire the competence of homing,” he added.

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The Ingenious Way Wasps Find Their Way Back Home

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.

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.

A Wasp Finding Her Way Home

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 …

Buzzworthy View: See the World Through a Wasp’s Eyes

Before a ground wasp leaves its burrow to forage, it takes to the air to perform a peculiar aerodynamic exercise: looping in arcs around the nest and gradually gaining height and distance before flying away. Now, scientists have created a video of this swirly trip from the insect’s point of view.

Solitary wasps — along with other insects — are known to perform “learning flights” when they leave their nests, making repeated loops around the nest location. And their return flights appear to mimic the patterns established during these “learning” loop-de-loops. While scientists had determined that these specialized departure flights were helping the wasps to orient themselves so they could navigate back home after foraging, it was unclear how, exactly, they were doing it.

It ended up taking 10 years for scientists to figure out that process, and the results were published online today (Feb. 11) in the journal Current Biology. [Video: Ride Along as a Wasp Navigates Home]

Solitary ground wasps’ maneuvers are conducted with precision and follow a distinct pattern common among insect species that perform learning flights, according to study co-author Jochen Zeil, who investigates ecological neuroscience at the Australian National University. “They back away from the nest in a series of widening arcs, pivoting around the nest while looking back,” Zeil told Live Science in an email. “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.”

But what, exactly, were the ground wasps seeing during these flights? To find out, the researchers used high-speed cameras to capture wasps’ departures and return flights.

As wasps left their nests and then returned later in the day, scientists recorded their movements with synchronized video cameras, and used software to track the wasps’ head positions and visualize the direction of their gaze. A panoramic imager allowed them to capture and then model the terrain around the nest in 3D. With this virtual 3D environment and a digital map of a wasp’s body position and sight lines during flight, the scientists were able to navigate using a first-person perspective — recreating not only the wasp’s flight, but also its point of view, and allowing them to fly around the nest as the wasp did and see what it saw.

Once they had this virtual environment, they used it to test predictions of wasp flights. The researchers compared patterns in return flights to orientation flight patterns, and found that their simulations matched the wasps’ behavior.

As learning flights are performed by a number of different insect species — some social and some solitary — the scientists expect that their study will have broader applications for research exploring how this internal GPS system develops, and could inform the development of new techniques for studying how animals process data input from the world around them.

Through the Eyes of a Wasp: How Wasps Acquire and Use Views for Homing

Many species of insects including honeybees, ants, and wasps live in nests, which act as headquarters from which all of the members of the colony operate. For an insect such as a wasp, the ability to navigate to and from headquarters accurately is a very important skill. Many nesting insects perform learning flights in order to return home to their nest later.

Researchers Wolfgang Stürzl, Jochen Zeil, Norbert Boeddeker, and Jan M. Hemmi have investigated the learning flights in ground nesting wasps (Sphecidae: Cerceris australis) to understand how the wasps acquire the information during learning flights and how they use that information to guide them back to their nest. In a recent study, these researchers used synchronized high-speed cameras to determine the 3D orientation of the wasp and the wasp’s head position during learning flights and homing flights in order to recreate what a wasp sees during it’s flights. They sought to understand what the wasps were seeing during the learning and homing flights, and how that predicted the wasps’ movement and ability to navigate to the nest.

By analyzing the video, the researchers were able to virtually reconstruct the viewpoint of the wasp (seen above) and identify regular patterns of view and movement. When a learning flight started, the wasp would exit the nest and turn until it faced the nest entrance, the wasp would then perform a series of distinct flight maneuvers, moving back and forth in arcs, keeping its gaze fixed on the nest so that the nest would pass from left to right or right to left in the wasp’s visual field. The arcs became wider as the learning flight progressed. During the learning flight, the wasp would also become aware of other objects that might help direct it to the nest. During a homing flight, the wasp would move in predictable ways when familiar view changes occurred compared to the learning flight, ultimately causing the wasp to navigate home.

Differences in viewpoint over time were calculated and compared during both the learning flights and the homing flights. The similarities in the patterns of gaze and view differences suggested that the wasps were continuously monitoring how their views change and that starting new arcs depended on what the wasp saw during the preceding arcs. The researchers suggested that the wasps used information from the learning flight about the changes in view during subsequent flights to navigate to the nest.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers created a computer simulation where a virtual wasp used this change in view navigation system to return to a virtual nest. Their virtual simulation was successful, supporting their hypothesis on how wasps acquire visual information and use that information for homing.

Many insects use learning flights in order to navigate. This research offers new possibilities for how insects other than wasps may achieve successful navigation. Additionally, a more thorough understanding of flight honing and information processing in insects could provide useful system structures for future artificially intelligent robotic developments

Stürzl, Wolfgang et al (2016). How Wasps Acquire and Use Views for Homing. Current Biology: n. pag. Web.

High-Speed V >

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.

YOUR HOME; Eliminating Wasps and Their Nests


SOME wasps sting and some do not.

And while some stinging wasps do so only when individually provoked, others sting as part of a devastating organized assault upon their victim.

It helps, then, to know which wasp is which, what to do when one is encountered and, most of all, how to keep wasp populations at bay. That is particularly true when wasps show up indoors rather than outside the home.

”Around this time of year, many bugs are beginning to appear mysteriously inside homes and businesses,” said Michael F. Potter, a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky. Among these insects, Dr. Potter said, are an array of different flies and bugs and, alas, certain types of wasps. ”These critters actually gained entry last fall through cracks and openings, and spent the winter hibernating in attics, soffits, wall voids and window and door casings,” he said.

While most bugs are merely an annoyance when they appear indoors, the appearance of wasps inside a house can create a palpable sense of anxiety among residents. ”Ladybugs, cluster flies and stink bugs characteristically do not bite, sting or carry diseases,” Dr. Potter said. Wasps, on the other hand, can impart a painful wallop when they are provoked.

”When you’re seeing wasps inside a house at this time of year, you’re probably seeing what are known as paper wasps, and it’s almost always the result of the emergence of overwintering queens,” he said, pointing out that while some wasps do not sting, overwintering queens do.

Paper wasps, Dr. Potter said, typically make their umbrella-shaped honeycombed nests in the early spring in attics and chimneys and around the eaves and ledges of a house. ”The nests are constructed of a paperlike material containing finely chewed wood fragments and salivary secretions of the wasp,” he said. In the fall, Dr. Potter said, the males wasps die off, but not before impregnating nearby available queens. The queens then typically look for a protected place to spend the winter. And in many cases, he said, insulated wall cavities fit the bill nicely.

With the onset of warmer weather, Dr. Potter said, the queens begin to emerge from their hibernation sites. And, he said, as they attempt to escape to their natural habitat outdoors, some inadvertently make their way into the living areas of the home, ”emerging from beneath baseboards, behind window and door frames, from within sash-cord openings, and around light fixtures and ventilators.” And since insects are attracted to light, they typically head toward the nearest window.

”This is a temporary annoyance that will run its course as the weather continues to warm,” Dr. Potter said, adding that while emerging queens are not normally aggressive, they will sting if they are mishandled.

”The easiest way to dispose of these insects found indoors is with a vacuum cleaner, broom or fly swatter,” he said, adding that when the insects first emerge from hibernation, they are sluggish and usually land on the nearest window.

Jack Conniff, an area representative for the J.C. Ehrlich Company, a pest-control company based in Reading, Pa., said there is little that can be done now to prevent wintering female wasps from finding their way into a house, but steps can be taken over the next few months to reduce the potential for a repeat performance next year. ”You want to inhibit the inward migration of the wasps,” Mr. Conniff said. ”And the best way to do that is to spray the eaves with insecticide.”

He explained that as new wasp colonies are being formed in the spring, many will build nests under the eaves of the house. So if steps are taken to dissuade the wasps from building nests on the house itself, it is less likely that the queens will find their way into the building when looking for a place to hibernate in the fall.

”Generally, early to mid April is the optimum time to spray the eaves,” Mr. Conniff said, adding that an additional treatment in early fall will eliminate wasps not killed the first time around.

”We can’t always keep them from getting in, but we can get them dead shortly after they do get in,” he said.

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A standard treatment for a two-story home, Mr. Conniff said, costs about $175.

Arthur Katz, president of Knockout Pest Control in Uniondale, N.Y., said that homeowners who are noticing an alarming number of wasps inside the house and who want to do what they can right now to eliminate the problem may be able to hire a professional to kill the wasps that are currently hibernating inside the walls. This can be accomplished, Mr. Katz said, by drilling small holes in the wall and then injecting an insecticide dust into the wall cavity.

”You may also be able to drill a hole in a window frame or in the woodwork near the floor,” he said, pointing out that insulation inside the wall will restrict the movement of the dust and decrease the effectiveness of the treatment. The price for such a treatment ranges from $150 to $1,000, depending on what needs to be done.

Ken Martin, president of, an Internet-based pesticide supply company, said homeowners can perform some aspects of pest control themselves.

For example, Mr. Martin said, wasps in existing nests under eaves can usually be evicted — and summarily executed — using any one of a number of products designed to douse the nest with pesticide from a safe distance. Such products, which are available at most home centers and hardware stores cost $3 to $6.

”You want to destroy nests on the house as soon as you notice them,” Mr. Martin said. ”The further away from the house the wasps end up nesting, the less likely it is they will find their way into the house in the fall.” He pointed out that while such sprays kill on contact, they usually have only a limited residual effect.

Mr. Martin added that there are a number of do-it-yourself products that can be sprayed on the house, some of which will repel wasps for up to several weeks. Such products — which include Spectracide Wasp and Hornet Killer, Bayer Advanced PowerForce Multi-Insect Killer and Ortho Home Defense System — cost anywhere from $10 to $20 for enough to treat an average house.

Dr. Potter, the entomologist, said that whenever a homeowner is attempting to eliminate a wasp problem, caution is critical. For example, he said, while it is fairly easy to eliminate a nest of paper wasps by spraying the nest from a distance, it is critical to avoid standing directly under the nest when performing the treatment.

”Most wasp sprays cause insects to drop instantly,” he said. ”So standing directly under a nest increases the risk of being stung.”

Dr. Potter said that it is also wise to prevent wasps from entering the house by sealing gable vents on attics and filling in other gaps or openings where pests can enter. ”If you’ve got a torn window screen on a second-floor bedroom, paper wasps will form their nests in the space between the screens and the window,” he said. He added that while homeowners can usually tackle a nest of paper wasps, it is not advisable to attempt the same thing with other varieties of wasps, like hornets or yellow jackets. Paper wasps, he said, tend to be brownish or dark orange; hornets are larger than paper wasps and usually have black and white markings; and yellow jackets have yellow and black patterns.

”Hornets are far more difficult and dangerous to control than paper wasps,” he said, explaining that when a hornet nest is disturbed, the hornets emit a scent — called a pheromone — that inspires other wasps in the nest to attack. ”Hornet nests may contain thousands of wasps, which are extremely aggressive when disturbed,” he said. A hornet’s nest, Dr. Potter said, resembles a ”large, gray, bloated football,” and is typically attached to a tree, a bush or the side of a building.

Yellow jackets, he said, can be even more aggressive than hornets. ”Yellow jackets are probably the most dangerous stinging insects in the United States,” Dr. Potter said, adding that the insects typically build their nests underground, sometimes in an abandoned chipmunk burrows or under landscape timbers, but they can also be found in walls, attics, crawl spaces and behind the siding of buildings. Like hornets, he said, yellow jackets will mount a coordinated, persistent attack upon their victim.

”Removal of hornets and yellow jackets is best accomplished by a pest control firm,” he said.

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A version of this article appears in print on March 23, 2003, on Page 11011003 of the National edition with the headline: YOUR HOME; Eliminating Wasps and Their Nests. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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