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What use are wasps? A perennial question. “Why did God make wasps?” is even asked as a theological poser – usually as a rhetorical question that can’t be answered. It is a question that comes with its own implied criticism – after all, nobody would ask “what is the purpose of butterflies?” (zero Google results at time of writing, vs. 838 for “what is the purpose of wasps?”). The suggestion is that as wasps are no use to humans, their existence is puzzling. A rather human-centric view. It also goes without saying that there are far, far more mysterious creatures than wasps upon this earth – and they don’t all seem to benefit humans either.
The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia
Anyway – now wasps do have a purpose. What a relief! Entomologist Joe Lewis, and agricultural engineer Glen Rains at at the University of Georgia have devised a pleasingly low-tech method to use wasps to sniff out all sorts of chemicals.
“So far, they’ve been able to detect, to some level, any chemical that we’ve trained them to,” Rains tells DBIS. Training is simple and quick. The wasps are fed sugar water. At the same time they’re introduced to a smell for 10 seconds. The process is repeated two more times. Lewis says, “We can train a wasp within a matter of 10 to 15 minutes.” For example, a set of wasps is trained to detect the smell of coffee. When they are put into a simple container, a tiny web camera watches their actions. When the smell of orange is pumped into the pipe, nothing. But when it’s coffee, the wasps crowd around the smell. So far, Rains and Lewis have not found anything the wasps cannot be trained to detect. They can be trained to detect everything from drugs to human remains to fungi on crops. They could one day even be able to detect deadly diseases like cancer.
This is obviously pretty useful – and pretty easy. Watch out, dogs – wasps are on your tails! See a video demonstration of this technique in action here.