Beewolf wasp puts cruise missile to shame

Picture of a beewolf wasp.
By USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory

In the aftermath of war, journalists and military experts tend to do a lot of crowing over the sophistication of modern weaponry.

They extol the virtues of “smart bombs,” laser-guided cruise missiles, and attack-helicopters with unprecedented—and lethal—maneuverability.

Without question, the ingenuity behind these weapons is often remarkable.

But such glowing paeans to the machinery of death rarely acknowledge a simple truth:

Even the most advanced of human’s airborne wonders are primitive in design compared to the tiny flying insects.


Consider the cruise missile.

According to The Wall Street Journal,

"the cruise missile’s path is predetermined by a digitized reference map stored inside a computer processor. A zoom lens and electronic sensors keep it on course as it glides along at high-subsonic speeds, hugging the terrain.”
Sounds pretty sophisticated, doesn’t it?

But now consider, in comparison, a humble insect—the beewolf.

The beewolf


Ben Smith, a technical editor for the computer magazine BYTE, acknowledges:

"Compared to the beewolf, the cruise missile is downright stupid.”

Why?

Because a cruise missile, for all its technical prowess, is fairly easy to fool.

Smith puts it this way:

"You just move the target, leaving behind a dummy target. Because the cruise missile destroys itself in the process of destroying its target, it never can discover that it has made a mistake.”
Fooling the beewolf is another matter.

One biologist studying these insects tried it.

Noticing that hundreds of them lived in a community of identical holes along a small stretch of beach, he waited until one of them flew off, and then he quickly covered up the entrance of its home with sand.

Then he waited to see if the insect could find the hole again.

To his amazement, it landed unerringly by the hidden entrance and dug it out!

Observing that the beewolf habitually flew what looked like a reconnaissance pattern above its burrow whenever it left or returned, the biologist wondered if the insect could be memorizing the surrounding landmarks, making a sort of mental map.

To test his theory, he covered the hole again and this time rearranged some pine cones that were lying around it.

When the beewolf came home, it reconnoitered from above as usual and then landed in the wrong place! For a moment it was confused.

Then it took off and flew another reconnaissance pattern—but this time higher.

Apparently this new perspective on the problem gave the little insect some more stable landmarks to refer to, for it immediately found its hidden burrow and dug it out again.

The computer aboard a cruise missile may cost millions of dollars and weigh nearly a hundred pounds [50 kg].

The beewolf uses a brain about the size of the head of a pin.

Ben Smith adds:

"The bee wolf also can walk, dig, locate and outmaneuver its prey, and find a mate (a task that would be disastrous for a cruise missile).”
Smith concludes:

"Even when this year’s high-performance machines outperform last year’s model by an order of magnitude, they are still not noticeably closer to the performance of the humble bee wolf’s brain, let alone the performance of the human mind.”