Do Wasps Remember Faces? Unveiling the Insect’s Memory Abilities

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Wasps are commonly known for their stinging abilities, but there’s more to these insects than meets the eye. In particular, paper wasps of the species Polistes fuscatus have shown remarkable facial recognition abilities. This skill is similar to those of primates and humans, making wasps an intriguing subject for researchers.

Studies have found that paper wasps can recognize the brightly colored faces of other wasps within their species. However, this ability seems to be highly dependent on their social interactions. For example, when paper wasps are reared in isolation, they lose the ability to identify faces.

The fact that paper wasps have evolved such a sophisticated cognitive skill is fascinating, as it demonstrates the complexities of their social behavior. By examining this topic, scientists can deepen our understanding of their communication systems and related adaptations.

Do Wasps Remember Faces?

Facial Recognition in Insects

In the world of insects, facial recognition is a fascinating and unique ability. While this skill is commonly associated with humans and primates, it’s also been observed in some species of wasps, specifically the Polistes fuscatus, also known as paper wasps.

  • Wasps use their facial recognition skills to differentiate between individuals.
  • This ability helps them identify potential threats, distinguish between allies and foes, and maintain a stable social order within the colony.

The Study on Polistes Fuscatus

Scientists conducted a study on paper wasps to understand how they developed this extraordinary ability. For example:

  • Polistes fuscatus, when raised in isolation, lose their ability to recognize other wasps’ faces.
  • This species can differentiate normal wasp face images more rapidly and accurately than non-face images or manipulated faces.

The comparison of paper wasps and other insects reveals interesting differences in facial recognition abilities:

Species Facial Recognition Ability
Polistes Fuscatus Yes
Polistes metricus No

In conclusion, paper wasps, specifically the Polistes fuscatus species, possess an intriguing ability to recognize and remember faces like humans and primates. This skill contributes to their social structure and behavior, setting them apart from other species in the insect world.

Mechanisms of Wasp Facial Recognition

Brain and Cognitive Abilities

Paper wasps show impressive facial recognition abilities as they can identify individual faces. This ability is comparable to primates and humans. Social isolation in wasps affects their visual areas of their brain impacting their facial recognition skills.

Advantages of wasps recognizing faces:

  • Enhances social interactions
  • Reduces aggression among nest-mates

Drawbacks of wasps recognizing faces:

  • Requires more cognitive resources
  • Reduced facial recognition when isolated

Holistic Processing in Insects

Holistic processing is crucial for facial recognition in both humans and wasps. Wasps can differentiate between normal wasp faces and nonface images faster and more accurately. Close relatives lacking facial recognition don’t exhibit this specialization.

Comparison of wasp species (e.g., Polistes fuscatus and Polistes metricus):

Species Facial Recognition Holistic Processing
Polistes fuscatus Yes Yes
Polistes metricus No No

Holistic processing in insects allows them to process complex visual stimuli and enhances their cognitive abilities.

Social Hierarchies and Recognition in Wasps

Dominance and Aggression

  • Wasps exhibit dominance and aggression to maintain social hierarchies.
  • These behaviors help determine a wasp’s position within the colony.

For example:

  • Higher-ranked wasps will perform aggressive behaviors to exert dominance.
  • Lower-ranked wasps may submit or retreat to avoid conflict.

The Role of Queens

Queens are at the top of the wasp hierarchy and have specific roles:

  1. Egg laying: Queens are responsible for laying eggs in the colony.
  2. Maintaining order: Queens enforce social order and ensure the colony’s survival.

Multiple queens may co-exist within a colony:

  • They share responsibilities in egg laying and colony management.
  • Pecking order exists among queens, with dominant queens suppressing the reproduction of subordinate queens.

Comparison of solitary and social wasps:

Feature Solitary Wasps Social Wasps
Nesting Individual Cooperative
Egg Laying Single Queen Multiple Queens
Kin Less Related More Related

Overall, wasps are capable of complex social behaviors, including recognition, dominance, and aggression to maintain their hierarchical colony structure. The role of queens is essential for overall colony success, especially in social wasp species.

Evolutionary Aspects of Wasp Facial Recognition

Comparisons with Other Species

Paper wasps, specifically Polistes fuscatus, have shown an impressive ability to recognize the brightly colored faces of other paper wasps. This unique capability is similar to facial recognition abilities observed in primates and humans. By contrast, other social insects like bees and ants generally lack this particular skill.

  • Paper Wasps: Display facial recognition abilities
  • Primates & Humans: Exhibit facial recognition
  • Other Social Insects: Typically do not have facial recognition

Genomes and Mutations

Research by Michael Sheehan, an assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior, and his colleagues from Cornell University, along with the University of Michigan evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts, explored the evolution of facial recognition in paper wasps by examining patterns of genetic variation within species. This collaboration aimed to better understand the underlying genomic factors that contribute to the wasps’ unique cognitive abilities. Using population genomics, the researchers studied the evolution of cognition in the Northern paper wasp.

Their findings suggest that genetic mutations in paper wasps have rapidly evolved and contributed to their facial recognition capabilities.

Environmental Factors and Wasp Recognition

Nests and Offspring

  • Nests: Wasps commonly build their nests under eaves or in other protected areas
  • Offspring: Most wasps prey on insects, like caterpillars, to feed their young

Paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) are known for their ability to recognize the brightly colored faces of other paper wasps, but this ability is lost when they are reared in isolation [^1^]. The environment they grow up in plays a significant role in their social behavior and face recognition ability.

Locations and Potential Food Sources

  • Locations: Wasps are attracted to locations with abundant flowers and other potential food sources
  • Flower preference: They are drawn to flowers with bright colors and distinctive markings
  • Aggressiveness: Yellow jackets are known for being more aggressive around food sources

In their natural environment, wasps often encounter a variety of potential food sources, such as flowers and other insects. They are attracted to flowers with bright colors and distinctive markings, which act as a reward for their pollination services. The availability of food in the environment influences wasp aggression, with yellow jackets being more aggressive in areas with abundant food sources like picnics or outdoor events.

Factor Paper Wasps Yellow Jackets
Nest location Under eaves Ground or aerial nests
Feeding preference Caterpillars Insects and human food
Aggressiveness Less aggressive More aggressive

Overall, the environment, including factors like nest location, offspring nourishment, and potential food sources, has a substantial impact on wasp recognition and behavior throughout their life.

Comparing Different Wasp Species

European Paper Wasp

The European Paper Wasp (Polistes dominula) is a social wasp species that has demonstrated an impressive ability to recognize individual faces. As members of the paper wasp family, these insects are known to have multiple queens in communal societies.

  • Recognizes individual faces
  • Has multiple queens

For example, the European Paper Wasp can distinguish between faces of their nestmates and intruders, helping them navigate their complex social environments.

Northern Paper Wasp

The Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus) is another member of the paper wasp family with remarkable human facial recognition abilities. This social species can also differentiate between individual faces among their own nestmates as well as intruders.

  • Recognizes individual faces
  • Social species

Comparison Table

Feature European Paper Wasp Northern Paper Wasp
Recognizes Faces Yes Yes
Complex Social Life Yes Yes
Multiple Queens Yes Not specified

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Unknown Wasp from Thailand


Subject: Hornet?
Location: Thailand, near Chiang Mai
October 27, 2012 9:43 pm
I saw this bug in Thailand. As I was taking its picture our taxi driver went running away in fear and told me NOT to mess with this bug. What is it?
Signature: M. Goldsmith

Unknown Wasp

Dear M. Goldsmith,
We have not had any luck identifying this amazing Wasp that might be a Hornet. We whish you had a view of the face.

Thank you for trying!  I wish I had a picture of the face too.
The cab driver ran away when he saw the bug, so I felt foolish
for taking the one picture that I did!  I ended up following him
running away!

Letter 2 – Unknown Insect from Saudi Arabia is some species of Wasp


Subject: what is this bug? a kind of Fly?
Location: Saudi Arabia_Madinah
April 21, 2014 8:45 am
Can you please identify this bug?
I’ve found it sitting on a leaf, in the morning in 21/4/2014.
I couldn’t take any pictures, except for this one.
and thank you.
Signature: M.A

Possibly a Sawfly
Unknown Wasp

Dear M.A.,
We wish your image had more detail.  At first we thought this might be a Fly in the order Diptera, but the antennae look decidedly unflylike.  We now believe this is a Hymenopteran, the order that includes bees and wasps, and we believe it might be a Sawfly.  We wish we were able to tell if there is one pair of wings or two pairs.  Perhaps one of our readers will be able to assist in this identification.

Letter 3 – Unknown Wasp from Thailand


Mud wasp?
You can’t imagine how glad I was finding this site! As I live in Thailand now, some strange insects get in front of my camera and most of the time it is difficult to find out what kind of species it is. Like for example this one. I think it’s a mudwasp, but a very tiny one (maybe just a baby!) not more than 1 centimeter. Normally the mudwasps here are much bigger. But maybe it could also be a paperwasp? Hope you can help my identify this one.

Hi Monique,
This does appear to be a Mud Dauber Wasp, but we cannot be sure. Your photos are lovely. Eric Eaton wrote is with his opinion: “The skinny wasps have me stumped, also, but I’m leaning toward something related to paper wasps or mason wasps…. Eric “

Letter 4 – Unknown Wasp identified as Sphex species


large wasp
I have noticed a wasp hanging around our house in South Carolina that I have never seen before. I have search online and haven’t been able to identify it. I have only seen it in the hottest part of the day. The picture was taken at 3pm and the temp is around 100 degrees. He seems to favor this coleus plant which is in bloom. The wasp is about 1 1/4 inches long. Can you help? Thanks

Hi Wendy,
We are not sure of the identify of your wasp. We will contact Eric Eaton to see if he can assist. Here is Eric’s response: “Daniel: The unknown wasp is Sphex habenus most likely, certainly a Sphex:-) Wonderful shot, too. Eric”

Letter 5 – Wasp: Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus


July 26, 2009
Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus. Identified by John S. Asher at Bug Guide.
Mound, MN

Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus
Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus

Thanks again Terry for contributing an underrepresented species on our site.

Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus
Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus

Letter 6 – Two Florida Wasps


Wasp eating Monarch caterpillar
I finally found out what was killing my Monarch caterpillars, can you please identify him, I think it is a type of paper wasp. I just moved to southwest Florida and am on my 3d generation of Monarchs in a little garden planted just for them. This little caterpillar was getting ready to form into a Chrysalis on the fence when the Wasp got him. I have found the remnants of them before, but have not caught the culprit. While I love my little caterpillar farm, I won’t get rid of the wasps because I don’t think I can support all of the caterpillars the Monarchs lay on my milkweed. We have a population of Monarchs here year round. I will let nature take its course in my garden. Great site, I love it and have learned quite a bit! Also enclosed is a Potter wasp that changed the color of his pots based on his foundation. Great site, I love it and have learned quite a bit!
Fort Myers Florida

Hi Terry,
Good call on the Paper Wasp. It looks like Polistes annularis as pictured on BugGuide. Regarding the Potter Wasp, we doubt that this was a designer choice based on reading Martha Stewart. More likely the mud that was available at the time had a different coloration. This might be Zeta argillaceum, also pictured on BugGuide, but your photo isn’t detailed enough to be certain.


  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

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  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Stephen Thorpe
    April 21, 2014 11:40 pm

    Not a sawfly, clearly a sphecoid, probably bembicine

  • Curious Girl
    April 25, 2014 2:41 am

    This looks to be very similar to the Sand Digger Wasps I’ve been photographing — and just looking at this morning — in Cyprus (but I cannot attach a photo in a comment — or if I can I do not know how). Perhaps Ammophila?

    I’m finding out that the fauna of Saudi Arabia often is also found in Cyprus such as with the very cool Carpenter Bees of which I also some great pics.

    • Hi Curious Girl,
      You cannot attach an image to a comment, but when you are able, if you can send that Sand Wasp image, it would be great.

  • Curious Girl
    April 25, 2014 2:41 am

    This looks to be very similar to the Sand Digger Wasps I’ve been photographing — and just looking at this morning — in Cyprus (but I cannot attach a photo in a comment — or if I can I do not know how). Perhaps Ammophila?

    I’m finding out that the fauna of Saudi Arabia often is also found in Cyprus such as with the very cool Carpenter Bees of which I also some great pics.

  • Looks like Rhynchium brunneum

  • The question of whether wasps can remember faces has long intrigued scientists. This recent study provides compelling evidence that these insects possess remarkable memory abilities, capable of recognizing and responding to human faces even after extended periods of time.


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