Wasps are some of the most misunderstood creatures on the planet, but you definitely do not want to harass them. Although the ubiquitous insects are quite pretty — northern paper wasps, for example, sport various shades of black, yellow, brown and gold on their exoskeletons — these particular wasps are also quite aggressive if they believe their colonies are being threatened. Paper wasp stings are notoriously painful, and can indeed be deadly if one is allergic to their poison.

Just as humans are urged to avoid messing with wasps, it appears that wasps follow that same advice when it comes to potentially antagonizing members of their own species. One could even say that wasps are the cunning analysts of the animal world, strategically plotting how to maneuver in the game of life with their peers like a Machiavellian schemer in any melodrama. It is all the more reason to treat these creatures with respect instead of derision.

Scientists studied how wasps eavesdrop on each other in 2020, as detailed in the journal Current Biology. They studied the northern paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus), which can be found across eastern North America. Researchers singled out specific northern paper wasps to observe other northern paper wasps fighting each other through a clear partition.

When the observer wasps were then permitted to interact with the fighter wasps, the observers' behavior was "strongly influenced by the observed fight," meaning wasps were less aggressive toward insects from their own species that demonstrated they were skilled, confrontational fighters. Once control trials confirmed that there were no plausible alternate explanations for the wasps' behavior, the researchers concluded that wasps can learn about new individuals simply through observation. Additionally, because wasps live in colonies, it is theoretically possible that they may even communicate this information somehow to other members of their communities.

In other words, wasps are smart enough to look at other individuals of their species and make individual-specific decisions based on their behavior.

"Wasps are an extremely large and diverse group with over 100,000 species. As a result, it's difficult to generalize about wasp intelligence," wrote Elizabeth A. Tibbetts, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan and lead author of the paper, told Salon by email. "The wasps I study, paper wasps, are surprisingly intelligent. Their brain is about the size of a grain of rice, yet they engage in incredibly complex social behavior."

This includes tracking other wasp's social relationships via eavesdropping, remembering and recognizing individual wasp faces, and even human faces, and even some skills humans can't pull off.

"Wasps are also capable of things that humans are not," Tibbetts told Salon. "For example, wasps can navigate accurately and precisely over many miles without needing a compass or phone."

Perhaps people assume wasps are unintelligent because many wasp species do seemingly sadistic things like engage in brood parasitism, where animals force other species to raise their young (four wasp species are confirmed to do this, including the paper wasp species Polistes semenowi.) Wasps are also known for being viciously efficient hunters. Perhaps people assume that wasps, if they are sentient, are also sadistic simply because of how they go about their lives.

Tibbetts strongly disagreed with this interpretation of wasp behavior.

"I'm confused by the suggestion that wasps are cruel and sadistic!" Tibbetts exclaimed. "Wasps are just trying to make their way in the world, like every other creature. They hunt to feed themselves and their babies. Is there a moral difference between a wasp feeding their offspring a chunk of caterpillar and a human feeding their toddler a chicken nugget?"

That said, Tibbetts was not downplaying the question of how intelligent wasps truly are. Quite to the contrary, she acknowledged it's a murky subject.

"The question of whether animals have emotions is pretty tricky," Tibbetts told Salon. "Experiences are subjective. As a result, it's difficult to know exactly what another human is experiencing, let alone a creature as different from us as a wasp. However, there is lots of evidence that animals likely have emotions that are relatively similar to human emotions. I imagine that wasps might get some enjoyment out of biting a caterpillar in the same way that many humans enjoy biting into a steak."

dditionally, regardless of how smart wasps truly are, it is clear that humans are dumb when they try to harm them. (A TikToker has attracted viral criticism for killing the poor bugs through the so-called "gasoline trend.") The agricultural community depends on many wasp species to pollinate plants, protect their gardens from pests and control invasive species.

Because there is such a large number of wasp species, they are also valuable in terms of understanding evolution. From a strictly strategic standpoint, there is obviously something about being a wasp that gets rewarded by nature. In fact, it is estimated that there are more diverse species of wasps than any other creature on Earth, outpacing even beetles, which have an estimated 380,000 species. But because so many wasps are parasites of beetles, some argue that wasps must be even more abundant and diverse. Humans stand to gain far more from studying the wasps around them, rather than trying to wipe them out.

After all, most wasps are canny enough to not mess with humans unless they absolutely need to, usually in the context of defending their nests. They already have the ability to assess potential threats accurately.

"Many wasps never attack humans," Tibbetts told Salon. "They use their stinger only for hunting. The wasps that do sting for protection only attack when their lives or their nests are in danger. I've handled and studied wasps for years and I rarely get stung."