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The other day I photographed this paper wasp, hard at work harvesting thistle fiber. I watched it for a couple of minutes as it chewed on the plant’s tough fibers. During the entire time that I observed it the wasp hung head down, securing itself to the thistle plant with its hind legs.
That struck me as remarkable. But, as I thought about it I realized that hanging upside down is something that paper wasps are accustomed to doing. Paper wasps often build their nests so that they hang downward from a base of support. The wasps work upside down as they construct their nests and tend to their offspring. That doesn’t bother them at all. Obviously, their brains have adapted so that the wasps are comfortable working in a range of positions that would make us dizzy.
The fact that these insects’ brains have evolved to allow them to work in all sorts of postures is impressive. Indeed, these wasps’ mental faculties are extraordinary when you think about it. They have the balance of acrobats. They can independently coordinate and use six legs and wings for flying. Their brains process images gathered by five eyes, consisting of two large compound eyes each containing hundreds of lenses, and three simple eyes arranged in a triangle on the tops of their heads. They have also evolved highly social behaviors and an extremely complicated system of social dominance and subordination. Uniquely, among insects, paper wasps are able to recognize other wasps by their facial structures and coloration, a capacity that hitherto was thought to be unique to humans and a few other mammal species. And, they do all of this with a brain that is one-millionth the size of a human brain. Pretty amazing.
So, the next time you see a paper wasp, don’t think of it as just another insect. This is a highly evolved creature, albeit one that has evolved in ways that at times are incomprehensible to us.
Photo made with a Canon 5Diii, 180 f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, ISO 125, M setting, f16 @ 1/160.