Among wasps, bigger eyes evolved the better to see social cues

Some wasps have developed bigger eyes, and thus better vision, to read the social cues written on the faces of their sister wasps, according to a new University of California, Berkeley, study.

“The Big Bad Wolf had it right,” said lead author Michael Sheehan, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow. “When Little Red Riding Hood said, ‘Goodness, what big eyes you have,’ he replied, ‘The better to see you with.’”

For some paper wasps, Sheehan said, “We found convincing evidence that the wasps evolved better vision for the purpose of telling one another apart. This is consistent with the idea that hearing, smelling, seeing or other sensory capabilities in animals, including humans, may have evolved in response to communication signals like we see in the wasp.”

Sheehan, a member of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and University of Michigan biologists Elizabeth Tibbetts and Judy Jinn published their findings this week in the journal Biology Letters, a publication of Britain’s Royal Society. Jinn is now a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s psychology department.

Biologists have generally assumed that senses such as vision and hearing evolved to improve hunting success or survival, but were not affected by social interactions. Sheehan discovered instead that some paper wasps – those that have variable facial patterns recognized by other wasps in the nest – have more acute vision relative to size than do wasps without variable facial patterns.

“Larger facets in their compound eyes mean better vision, but we found that as these wasps get smaller, they have larger than expected eyes,” he said. “This demonstrates that they evolved improved acuity relative to size in order to discriminate among different individuals in the colony.”

The paper wasps with variable facial patterns are mostly species in which several queens sometimes cooperate to establish a colony, which would make the ability to discriminate among individuals important, he said. Depending on the species, wasps have evolved facial markings that act either like name tags for individual recognition, or like karate belts indicating a queen’s strength.

“This doesn’t overturn evolutionary dogma, but extends the idea that feedback from the environment – in this case, communication signals among members of the same species – can drive change in our senses,” he said.

Natural selection favors sharper vision

Paper wasps are distributed around the globe and known for their open, honey-combed paper nests, made from chewed wood and attached by a stalk to trees and buildings. Like all insects, they have compound or faceted eyes, each a cluster of thousands of small, telescope-like omatidia with an outer lens that focuses light onto sensory cells inside the eye.

Compound eyes are great for detecting motion – hence a fly’s ability to dodge a swatter – but provide poor resolution, though larger diameter lenses collect more light and generally provide sharper vision. Many flying insects have a high-acuity zone within the compound eye outfitted with larger diameter lenses and typically facing forward.

Tibbetts, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Sheehan discovered three years ago that some paper wasps learn and recognize the colorful facial patterns of other wasps in the colony, just as humans recognize others’ faces. Sheehan reasoned that if patterns on the face were important for wasp social interactions, then natural selection might favor wasps that see better, and the lenses in the high-acuity zone on smaller species would be disproportionately larger.

That is what he found when surveying 19 different species of paper wasp (Polistes), half caught in fields around the East and Midwest, and half obtained from museum collections, some of which were more than 100 years old. While the largest lenses on the eyes of big wasps were the same size whether or not the wasps could recognize facial patterns, smaller wasps differed. Those with variable facial patterns had larger lenses in their acute zone than those that do not have variable faces.

Sheehan, who as a behavioral ecologist investigates how social interactions in animals affect behavior, evolution and cognition, plans further studies to see if these wasps evolve larger patterns, essentially creating a larger billboard, and how the visual abilities of wasps have shaped the evolution of the color patterns well. The work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (IOS-1146139).

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.


One email, each morning, with our latest posts. From medical research to space news. Environment to energy. Technology to physics.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

9 thoughts on “Among wasps, bigger eyes evolved the better to see social cues”

  1. The blog talks about wasps developing better eyes to see and recognize other wasps better which was concluded to be an evolution trait affected by social factors and not hunting or survival factors. For organisms like wasps, ants and wild dogs, I believe that advances in in their social interaction skills would have a direct relation with their survival rate especially seeing that these are social organisms and rely on the community to survive.
    Having said this, the fact that some of the wasps have been surviving without better eyes makes me wonder if the process of obtaining the eyes was really necessary.
    Could insects also be evolving into being that socialize like modern humans; with increase in facial recognition, the wasps could develop better ways to communicate which could lead to audio languages and from there it could branch out in many different ways.
    This was a very interesting blog and made me reflect back on the human populace with the great increase in technology and social media, have we stopped ourselves from not physically evolving to become better social beings?

  2. The modern day status quo is to kill any creepy crawlies, especially spiders, and off course every wasp looking creature stings. The trend to create an ecosystem in your garden or fish tank is very farfetched for most people. So the phenomenon for a wasp colony to have colourful facial patterns would be beyond most individuals. Variable recognizable facial patterns would put these crawlies on top of the evolutionary pyramid. Evolution and therefore cognition and behaviour set the trend for social cues. To be effective, signals must propagate and be detected by receivers an area overlooked in the evolution of animal communication. A very interesting field and opportunity for further research.

  3. I never realized that insects would be able to recognize each other by sight; literally remembering patterns and identify it as friend or foe and to what level. I never would have guessed that they use anything else than the smell of hormones and dancing patterns such as found with bees. The world is so much more complex than we realize and this type of research slowly reveals the beauty of nature and it’s systems. This finding reminds us to keep an open mind about why some thing are like they are and will help a lot with further research. Better knowledge to further research all with…

  4. The better to see you with – to read social cues. There are positive social cues and negative social cues from the environment and both must be responded to ingeniously. Both must be interpreted correctly to see a possible mate but as also to see a possible predator or to detect other threats such as weather conditions.
    Friend or foe is not the only factors playing a roll, one has to have other capabilities such as a fair degree of agileness . Detecting food will be another part of surviving of the fittest.
    Therefore friend, foe or food all will form part of the environmental feedback for the wasp and the better vision of the wasp will surely contribute to all of these aspects.

  5. This excellent study contributes to us better understanding the role of eyesight in the lives of wasps. Identifying wasps largely relies on their colourful markings. Better eyesight would then lead to better interaction of specie members. the article explains natural selection, as depicted by Charles Darwin. The evolution of a character trait could be as a result of a single trigger such as the social interaction of wasps, like when finding a mate. Better eyesight of wasps should not only be seen as contributing to one aspect of survival, but rather to an array of factors.
    When taking the latter into consideration, one can conclude that in order for a species to be able to reproduce, they first have to become self sufficient and have to have a means of supporting a colony (in the case of wasps). Thus in order for wasps to reach this stage of self sufficiency, they first have to overcome a lot of obstacles like gathering enough food and building a large nest, doing all of this whilst trying to avoid many predators. It makes more sense in saying that their large eyes are mainly used for survival. Whether wasps have weaker or stronger eyes, the ones that will reproduce at the end of it all, will be those who survived in their given environment which will most likely be those with stronger, larger eyes.

  6. Survival of the fittest (Charles Darwin 1809-1882) and therefore survival of ultra- sensory capabilities – hearing, smelling and seeing is the key to ensure offspring. The answer to secure survival. Social interaction in a nonverbal matter is far more prestigious in the much more spacious insect world than in the more verbally focused human world. The excellent article is one of many examples were insects is the flag ship for the evolutionary process of natural selection.
    “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
    ― Charles Darwin
    My own modern day version: “The secret for success is how quickly one can adapt to changes.”

  7. This article was very thought provoking. I thought senses like sight and hearing wasn’t as important as other senses in insects. I didn’t think wasps would rely on their sight as much as they do. This captured my attention and since I was still not sure why sight would matter I read up on it. According to Wikipedia sight will help a wasp to recognise the hierarchy of the colony. Every wasp wants to be the most dominant so they can reproduce with the queen, but with better sight they will be able to recognise who they should avoid in fights. Amazing. It really is wonderful how insects and other animals can adapt to survive.

  8. This just proves the scientific cliche of “use it or lose it” with regard to evolution but in this case with the wasps, it’s “use it or make it better” so to speak. This extraordinary form of evolution to enable recognition of fellow hive members is a prime example of the great complexities of nature in which we are only beginning to understand.

  9. This is a very interesting article. I agree with the writers reasoning for paper wasps’ growing bigger eyes, but only to a certain extent. A paper wasp is a wasp that collects fibers from dead wood and plant stems, mixes it with saliva and then uses it to create waterproof nests made with brown or gray papery material. According to the article, this wasp is undergoing evolutionary changes to better its communication and socialization. I believe that the paper wasp is changing, but for reasons of survival. Natural selection – which is Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory – is based on the concept of the survival of the fittest. To have better communication between individuals in a species, does not necessarily contribute to the probability of surviving. In my opinion, there is an increase in the eye size of paper wasps, because it benefits their survival in nature. Bigger eyes lead to better eye sight, which helps the wasps to avoid predators.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.