Remember that bee you swatted at and tried to kill, but it ended up getting away? Watch your back, because it knows what you look like. New research reveals that certain paper wasps and honeybees can remember distinct characteristics of individual faces. This came as a surprise to researchers who did not expect to see such advanced social abilities in creatures with such tiny brains.
Humans are excellent at identifying people based on looks. Other animals, like crows, have been documented as being able to identify individuals too, though their brains are much bigger and they are generally regarded as much more intelligent than these paper wasps. Honeybees were also shown to be able to recognize different faces, including those belonging to humans.
When these insects view an individual (be it another insect or the person who just pissed them off by swinging a newspaper at them), their field of vision is broken up into hexagons from the thousands of ommatidia that make up the compound eye. Essentially, they process information based on these chunks from the structures in the eye that act as individual units and put the entire picture together. It might not be very clear compared to what we are used to since they don't have a pupil to regulate the amount of light coming in onto the retina, but it is good enough to allow wasps and bees to discern prominent facial features that can be used for identification.
Understanding how these insects are able to achieve this high level of individual detection with such a relatively simple brain might be able to inspire new facial recognition programs. This research was announced by Elizabeth Tibbetts from the University of Michigan published a paper on these results in the journal Ethology. Her colleague Adrian Dyer from RMIT University has published five papers this year regarding Hymenoptera vision.