Wasps use geometry to correct mistakes while building their nests

This study shows the immense computational ability possessed by wasps

Updated - July 01, 2023 05:58 pm IST

Published - July 01, 2023 05:45 pm IST

The wasps usually collect fibres from plants and wood and mix them with their saliva to create water-resistant nests, often preferring to build their nests in and around human habitation. Yellow wasps stinger also contains venom.

The wasps usually collect fibres from plants and wood and mix them with their saliva to create water-resistant nests, often preferring to build their nests in and around human habitation. Yellow wasps stinger also contains venom. | Photo Credit: Konwar Ritu Raj/The Hindu

At least one species of wasps have shown an intuitive knowledge of geometry that help construct and correct mistakes while building nests, new research has shown. 

These tiny architectural experts build nests from paper-like materials made from wood pulp and hardening saliva. The nests are built by placing hexagonal (six-sided) structures side by side to make a straight structure. 

Led by Dr. Shivani Krishna, a team of researchers at Ashoka University, studied the nests of Polistes wattii commonly known as yellow paper wasps found on the grounds of the university.

Also Read | Yellow Paper Wasp: The caterpillar eater

Published last year in Scientific Reports, research has found that during the construction process, if a pentagon (five-sided) cell is constructed instead of a hexagon, the wasps will add a heptagon (seven-sided) cell to correct the mistake. 

Conversely, when a heptagon is added during the construction, the wasps will insert a pentagon. 

“This is done to make sure that the nest, often hanging from walls or trees, is built straight. If the extra cell is not introduced, the nest will not be stable and end up shaped like a hat or a saddle,” said Dr. Krishna while speaking to The Hindu.

a) A pentagon and a heptagon amidst hexagons (dipole), and (b) Stone-Wales defect (pentagon-heptagon quadrupole) or a dislocation dipole. The arrow points towards the representation of hexagons when these defects are fixed. The possible modifications to the wall are indicated above the arrow. Bottom panels show their outline in the wasp nests.

a) A pentagon and a heptagon amidst hexagons (dipole), and (b) Stone-Wales defect (pentagon-heptagon quadrupole) or a dislocation dipole. The arrow points towards the representation of hexagons when these defects are fixed. The possible modifications to the wall are indicated above the arrow. Bottom panels show their outline in the wasp nests. | Photo Credit: Scientific Reports

These principles have been documented in non-living substances such as graphene or in viral outer coat which is driven by genetics. 

“The fact that these organisms can employ these geometrical rules makes it a behavioural trait. Somewhere, during their evolution, wasps would have learnt to coordinate and rectify the mistake while building the nest,” she added. 

Also Read | New genus of wasp named after Soliga community in Karnataka

The researchers also noticed that when in close proximity, cells are placed in a particular order so that the angles and the sides of the cells match. However, over long distances, the order is lost and the cells are not symmetrically placed.

This study shows the immense computational ability possessed by wasps.

“They are able to calculate length, angle and use that information to build a geometrical structure. The fact that they are able to measure things and maintain uniformity is an incredible feat for an organism that has a small brain,” said Dr. Krishna. 

The study further opens the door to questions such as who is involved in repairing the nest, whether there is an ‘inspector’ wasp who keeps an eye while the nest is being built and whether there is any behavioural change in the wasps before and after the nest is built, she noted.

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