Scientists have been able to show that there is method to their menace which was believed – until recent decades – to be limited to humans.
Transitive inference is a form of reasoning that involves using known relationships to infer unknown relationships.
For example, if A is bigger than B and B is bigger than C, humans can deduce that A is bigger than C.
Scientists have found wasps are first insects to use a form of reasoning called transitive inference
Due to tiny nervous systems, experiments revealed that honeybees didn’t have the same cognitive ability as wasps and indicated that the clever insects might succeed where bees haven’t.
Elizabeth Tibbetts, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan, believes wasps perform better than bees because they display types of complex social behaviour which isn’t seen in bees.
Professor Tibbetts tested whether two common species of paper wasp, Polistes dominula and Polistes metricus, could solve a transitive inference problem.
The wasps were taught a hierarchy of five colours which can be labelled A, B, C, D and E. In pairs, the wasps went to the colours and learnt when they landed on one they would get a mild electric shock.
When A and B were presented together, B would give the shock. But when the wasps were shown B and C, it was C that gave the shock. Out of C and D it was D, and out of D and E it was E that delivered a shock.
Professor Tibbetts told The Times: ‘I thought wasps might get confused, just like bees.
‘But they had no trouble figuring out that a particular colour was safe in some situations and not safe in other situations.’
The findings are published today in the journal Biology Letters, which is published by the Royal Society.