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Saw a wasp but I can’t tell you what the wasp saw

May 21, 2015


When you share your lunch with them, wasps absolutely demand your attention — they’re quite high-maintenance that way.

That’s been my experience in the past and again Wednesday evening when a tiny little wasp dropped in on me as I played with both my laptop and my food in the South Granville area McDonald’s.

It landed on the rounded bezel surrounding the screen of my Pavilion G6 and fairly riveted my attention.

It wasn’t that it was threatening in size or demeanor — it wasn’t. It was rather small in fact, maybe two-thirds the size of any yellow jacket I’ve seen and it mostly just wandered back and forth along the top edge of my laptop’s screen, twitching and flicking its long antennae, like it was dousing for something.

But projecting far out from the apex of its abdomen, nearly a quarter the length of its body, was an ominous-looking dark needle, which I took to be the biggest wasp stinger I’d ever seen.

Not being able to identify the type of wasp is what really stings


The three bumps atop her head are primitive light sensing eyes.

The little wasp was the colour of amber, from its exoskeleton down to the tips of its legs, without any visible hair and slightly translucent in the late afternoon back light from the street.

Its fathomless compound eyes were dark mahogany as were its other eyes: the three dots on the top of its head, or ocelli, which detect changes in light. Its long, segmented and curling antennae were darker than its body and splashed with a mid section of two ivory-coloured segments.

I considered several possible identifications, including, ever so briefly, that it was a giant flying killer ant from the Amazon, thanks to a photo I found of a winged male Dinoponera gigantea.

But only the males of this genus can fly and of course they don’t sting and they’re typically twice the size of the wasp I saw.


I finally settled on the idea that my lunch guest had to be some kind of parasitic wasp and that the needle-like projection was an ovipositor by which the foraging female wasp both paralyzed her prey and injected some of her eggs into its body (male wasps have no stinger and almost no useful role in wasp society beyond mating).

The prey then survives until the eggs hatch inside it and the wasp larvae eat their way out.

Gross, I know, but farmers love parasitic wasps because they pretty much target every pest insect which farmers hate. Some parasitic wasps, however, are hyperparasitic, meaning that they prey on other parasitic wasps, in which case, farmers have nothing to root for.

As for why the little wasp was so interested in my laptop; I really think it had to do with it being able to see electromagnetic fields.


Last year, I asked the question: can ladybugs see electricity? after watching a ladybug spend a long time fixating on the EMF-emitting parts of my laptop: the outer edge of the screen (over the internal antenna), the strip above the keyboard (over the battery) and the USB cellular Internet stick.

Many birds and insects are know to have magnetoception, that is to say, they can detect the presence of magnetic fields and a similar sense for electric fields, called electroreception, has been observed in fish.

Ladybugs, honeybees, wasps — maybe all insects, can see into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum, meaning they can “see” electromagnetic fields.

All these extra senses are meant to help those that possess them to get ahead in life, to hunt, to navigate and to generally survive in the natural world — what they do for species in the unnatural human world is anyone’s guess.

Just picture the confusion

The invisible field of a personal Wi-Fi hotspot hovering over a smartphone. -- Luis Hernan

Invisible field of a personal Wi-Fi hotspot hovering over a smartphone. — Luis Hernan

What a wasp or a ladybug gets out of the unnatural EMF displays given off by human artifacts such as laptops and cell phones isn’t at all clear. I would actually expect that they just get very confused.

We’ve been electromagnetically polluting the aether for over 180 years, but because it’s out of sight for us it’s out of mind. After all this time, we still struggle to imagine exactly what it looks like or how it might harm living things.

The idea of visualizing electromagnetic pollution is still a curiosity for the most part. Aside from electric utilities using UV sensors to inspect high-tension power lines for damaging coronal discharges, what few visualizations there are rely more on art than science.

Since 2014, the Digital Ethereal project, by Luis Hernan, a Ph.D. student at Newcastle University in the U.K., has used coloured LEDs and trick photography to visually simulate the shape and signal strength of wireless networks.

Two years ago, two designers from the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design similarly used a hacked Android phone and various “processes” to create light paintings of the electromagnetic fields around everyday objects like radios and laptops.

But I know of no systematic method used to quantify or map the signal pollution in a geographic area.

We leapt headlong into global radio communications, in blissful ignorance of the complex way that life on earth interacts with electromagnetic fields. And not being able to see the EMF stew we’ve created allows us to largely ignore its possible consequences.

Now that we are learning how many animals rely on their sense of electromagnetic fields, it’s probably too late. Human civilization simply wouldn’t function without wireless communication,

It’s no great surprise to me that there are relatively few studies (and none conclusive) into the effects of EMF pollution. where’s the will and the incentive to do the research and frankly, what would be the point?

If we discovered tomorrow, irrefutably, that two billion smartphones were wiping out our wasp friends, for example, would humanity be willing to lose the phones or would we just put up with losing the wasps?

Of course we would do the later. We might lose some sleep over it but in the end we would live without the wasps (or any other species) because we’re long past the time when we could imagine living without our mobile telecommunications. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Computers

  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Another wonderful post, awesome research and pictures. Depressing possibilities. We are truly destructive addicts, to hell with the results of our obsessions. Does the internet or (signal?) have anything to do with the ‘666’ an ancient book warned us about?

  2. Sandra permalink

    I echo Slowcrow’s comment. Great post indeed Stanley!

    Re: your subsequent comment:
    I have not purchased an Archie comic book since girlhood, however I am sad that its publication is coming to an end. I did get a good chuckle from the linked article though when I read, “Is Reggie actually Satan, as I have so long suspected?”

    • In the mid 1990s, before the Web, If I wanted to find things on the Internet, I often had to turn to a number of now extinct search engines, including: Archie, Veronica and Jughead. Archie indexed FTP sites and Veronica and Jughead were for searching Gopher, the precursor of the World Wide Web.

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