Wasps aren't very good at lying, cruel study finds

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Wasps, the nasty, sociopathic version of bees, don’t abide liars in their ranks, according to a very specific upcoming study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Researchers basically created an insect Fight Club for the experiment. Wasps were set up in a series of cage matches by evolutionary biologists at the University of Michigan in order to study wasp honesty. The researchers chose to work with paper wasps, which are very good at origami. (Kidding! Actually they're named for the hives they make from saliva, dead wood, and plant fibers.)

Paper wasps have distinct facial markings, which apart from making them look mean, indicate how strong and healthy they are and how often they win fights. They evolve these facial features over their lifetimes—the more markers, the better for the wasp. A weak wasp, light on the facial details, knows to stay away from an antagonist with more markings.

The experiment aimed to test the wasps' strength in fights with potential rivals, and to see whether "lying" about how strong a wasp was would give it an advantage. For this very mean study, the study's authors first stole collected queen wasps from their nests at breeding time, when tensions are high, and then forced weak wasps into rumbles against far stronger contenders in a clear plastic box. (Ethics are much more flexible for experiments on wasps than people.) Wasp "lying" was accomplished by painting more facial markings on the faces of weaker wasps.

Perhaps predictably, the outcome for the liars was not good (just like you were taught in elementary school). When the wasps were bled(!) after each fight to test their hormone stress levels, the victorious, strong wasps had higher levels of hormones associated with strength, fertility and aggression, whereas the weaker losers of the fights were drained of these same hormones. In the wild this would make the weaker wasps less attractive mates, with long term consequences for trying to rise above their station by lying about their fighting abilities. They also get horribly beaten up, to boot.

The study's authors interpret these findings as further proof of the theory of survival of the fittest: stronger wasps will attract more mates, win more fights and have overall better chances of passing on their genes. Weaklings, meanwhile, should get used to their lot in life and should not try and rise above their station by picking fights they cannot win, or telling lies. And they should try to avoid laboratories, where cruel researchers might force them to engage in fights they might otherwise absolutely avoid.

Perhaps the study's authors should beware; paper wasps, like bees, can recognize individual human faces. Let's hope the study's participants don't try to orchestrate a Tyler Durden-style revenge on their researchers.


Elmo is a writer with Real Future.