Wasps Fly Backwards to Ensure They Can Get Home

When sand wasps leave home in the morning they capture snapshots of the landscape around their nest, a study using high-speed video has found.

When sand wasps leave home in the morning they capture snapshots of the landscape around their nest to make sure they can find their way back later, a study using high-speed video has found.

The field study, published today in the journalCurrent Biology, is the first to reconstruct what a homing insect in the field sees, co-author Professor Jochen Zeil from the Australian National University's Research School of Biology said.

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"They look back at the nest from the view point of their future return," he said.

"It's a bit like when you leave a hotel in an unfamiliar environment. To make sure you recognise it when you come back, you turn back as you are leaving it.

"It's a very smart way of obtaining all the information you need to get back."

It has long been known that insects use orientation flights to help find their way back to the nest, but until now, no-one knew exactly what information they used in this process and how they used it.

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To investigate this question, Dr Zeil and colleagues used two high-speed cameras to record the brief orientation flight of the female ground-nesting wasp Cerceris australis.

The researchers captured both the three-dimensional path travelled by the wasp and the direction the insect was looking at the time.

"In a way we were sitting in cockpit of this animal while it was learning how the scene looks like around the nest on departure," Dr Zeil said.

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Wasps have compound eyes that capture the world in low resolution and panoramic vision.

The researchers combined this fact with flight path information to reconstruct what the wasps saw on their orientation flight.

Dr Zeil and colleagues showed that during the orientation flight the wasp flies backwards away from the nest in a very systematic zigzag pattern of arcs around the nest, slowly getting higher and further away (see video below).

The researchers hypothesized that during the orientation flight, the wasp would produce a systematic sequence of views of the nest in its landscape, which they used when deciding what direction to fly in on their return.

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Dr Zeil and colleagues showed their hypothesis was correct by successfully predicting the movements of wasps returning to their nest.

They then tested their hypothesis on computer models and found that virtual wasps could be "brought home" if they were programmed with orientation flight data from real wasps.

Dr Zeil said the research could help in the development of miniaturised autonomously-navigating robots.

Support for the study came from a number of institutions, including the German Science Foundation, Australian Research Council and the Defence Science Technology Organisation.

Article first appeared on ABC Science.

This photograph shows a ground-nesting wasp (

The U.S. Geological Survey is posting photos of insects on its

Flickr page

, offering a macro look at this hidden world. First up, this Festive Tiger Beetle (

Cicindela scutellaris

) was found on top of a butte in Badlands National Park that had ancient windblown sand at its crest. Here, this sand specialist can build its long burrows.

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This Agapostemon bee species is one of the most common native bees in the eastern United States. In almost any field there can be hundreds, if not thousands, of these bees visiting a wide variety of blooming plants. One of the largest of the sweat bees, it still goes undetected if you don't get down on your knees, face close, among the flowers. This one was collected at Colorado National Monument, Mesa County, Colo.

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This wild bee (

Hoplitis fulgida

), a female from Grand Tetons National Park, was collected as part of a study of climate change. Most species in this genus are black , but a few, like this one, are as the Latin in name implies, glittering jewels.

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This unknown wasp was collected in Cecil County, Md.

This is an unknown species of Robber Fly from Charles County, Md. Robber flies, a very large and widespread type of fly, feed on many different kinds of insects, making them a key player in maintaining the insect balance in different environments.

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One species of the rarely seen leafcutting bee, this is

Megachile integrella

from the sandhills of North Carolina. Leafcutter bees are so called because they cut plant leaves to create the cells in their nests. The bees tend to build their homes in rotted wood or in the strong stems of plants.

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Phidippus clarus

is a type of jumping spider. This one was found in Beltsville, Md., but

Phidippus clarus

lives in fields and prairies across North America. It feeds on seasonal plants.

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Eggplant Tortoise Beetles like eggplants (go figure), eating holes in the plants' leaves. From the underside, the insects look quite queenly, with their ruffled collars. This one was gathered at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Anne Arundel County, Md.

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The Karner blue butterfly,

Lycaeides melissa samuelis

, is endangered. Karner blue butterflies feed on nectar from many different types of flowers, but their larvae can survive on the leaves of only one specific plant, which has been decimated by habitat loss or change.

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Deer flies like this one, despite their groovy eyes, deliver a ferocious bite. And no wonder: when the female bites (males don't bite), she lacerates the skin and when the blood flows, sponges it up with her mouth. There are over 110 species of deer fly.

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Centris bees, like this one, make their homes in holes, either in trees or in the ground.

The biggest visual difference between damselflies and dragonflies are their wing positions when resting. Dragonflies hold their wings open, while damselflies close them above their backs. This Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly (

Calopteryx maculata

) was found on a Beltsville, Md. stream.