Oh, no! Wasps are pretty smart!
Dinosaurs had such primitive central nervous systems that if you accidentally stepped on the tail of a brontosaurus you’d have time to start running like crazy before any neurologic impulse reached the 70-foot-long lizard’s brain.
Of course, this never could have happened because the prehistoric beasts died off long before humans evolved, but I experienced a similar delayed response to stimulus the other day when I put on a pair of work gloves.
It took a moment or two for my purportedly advanced nervous system to register an unsettling sensation on my hand, and several more seconds before my brain processed this information and eventually concluded: SOMETHING IS CRAWLING AROUND INSIDE MY GLOVE!
Mercifully, my reflexes finally kicked in and then accelerated from slow motion to warp speed. I ripped off the glove, shook it vigorously and watched a wasp the size of a pterodactyl fly from the open cuff.
My first thought, after thanking my lucky stars, was that the wasp simply had sought shelter in my glove — a quiet, dark place to hang out away from the noisy nest.
But then I read about a new study that found the common paper wasp is the only insect capable of performing a form of deductive logic called transitive inference. Basically, scientists determined wasps can figure out that if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C, then A must be bigger than C.
I surmise that the wasp in my glove must have observed how I often wear hand protection when working outside, that there’s an opening, and therefore it’s no great feat to sneak inside and wait for unprotected flesh.
This all makes sense if you read the study, reported last week in Biology Letters. Published by The Royal Society, a British organization recognized as the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, this journal describes how researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a series of experiments in which wasps learned to avoid electrified landing zones that were colored differently from so-called “safety” zones.
Some people studying wasp behavior might have been tempted to rely on a tennis racket, pancake griddle or spray can of carburetor fluid to teach them not to land in certain zones, but the Michigan researchers took a more humane approach.
“It is a very mild shock,” evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Tibbetts, the team leader, told Motherboard in an email. “We want the wasps to learn, so we keep the shock low enough that it doesn't hurt them or distract them. The shock is slightly unpleasant.”
I’m sure this miniscule charge feels a whole lot less unpleasant than a wasp sting, which I have experienced on more than one occasion. Evidently I haven’t sufficiently grasped how to apply the transitive inference concept and avoid encounters with stinging insects.
This wasp news is quite troubling for those of us who spend a good deal of time outdoors. Also, what’s to keep more of the buggers from finding their way inside?
Their newly discovered ability reminds me of a quote from an article published earlier this year on the Politico website about Justin McConney, who had been Donald Trump’s first social media manager.
McConney said that Trump knew little about Twitter before the election and relied on him to issue all his tweets.
But one morning, McConney woke up, checked the Trump Organization’s Twitter account and discovered that some new tweets had mysteriously materialized.
That’s when it dawned on him: Trump had tweeted on his own for the first time.
"The moment I found out Trump could tweet himself was comparable to the moment in 'Jurassic Park' when Dr. Grant realized that velociraptors could open doors," McConney said. “I was like, 'Oh no.'"
Now we have our own velociraptor moment involving wasps.
So don’t turn your back on the wily insects. And above all, shake your gloves a few times BEFORE putting them on.
New London Street Challenge update
Organizers of the New London Street Challenge, which encourages participants to cover on foot all 392 streets and byways in the city, is staging its second group run/walk at 6 p.m. next Thursday, May 23, at Dev’s on State restaurant, 312 State St., across from the Garde Arts Center.
Anyone can join in a 3-mile run or walk, either with the group or at their own pace. Maps of the route will be available.
Organizers Steve Smith and Joe Clement report that about 90 people have signed up for the challenge, which they completed last year. I wrote about the challenge last month and tagged along on the first group run last week — a good workout and a good time.
For more information about the challenge, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note: Joe Clement is an organizer of the New London Street Challenge, an organization encouraging participants to travel on foot on all of the city's streets and byways.
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