What Is The Smartest Insect – You won’t Believe This

This may be a difficult question to answer, based on how one defines intelligence and smartness, especially if one starts with the notion that intelligence starts with a functioning brain along the lines that we as human beings have brains.

Insects do not have a large brain, like us, since they do not need such an organ to survive. Insects do have a neural network, but it’s distributed over a wider area of their bodies and not concentrated in the cranial area.

This is how evolution has dictated the physiognomy of insects.

Having said this, we need to think through what one would normally consider as signs of smartness or intelligence.

When we consider things from this angle, there are a number of insects that display markedly intelligent behavior.

What Does Smartness Entail?

Smartness can take many forms, but one of the acid tests is to distinguish between actions that are instinctive, based on evolution over hundreds of millions of years, versus those that either require thoughtfulness – as in cohesive group behavior – or actively demonstrate that the insect is thinking before taking a decision.

The thoughtfulness could take multiple forms. It could be about learning from adverse outcomes, where an insect that has had a bad experience in certain situations is cautious for a while if the same situation crops up in the future.

Another possibility is when an insect may be seen to take a decision, as opposed to taking the same option every time based on instinct.

Other instances could include smart defense mechanisms or trying to co-opt other insects/denizens to protect themselves from a predator, as with some butterflies.

Architecture as proof of intelligence?

Similarly, some insects demonstrate intelligence in the way they look for food, utilizing ways that go well beyond foraging, as we see with farmer ants.

Many insects have ways of communicating or “speaking”, using symbolic language or abstract behavior. Many others use pheromones to connect with other insects.

Some insects even exhibit dance behavior that are distinctly correlated with what anyone would consider a subtle and higher function of the brain.

We introduce 10 commonly found insects that scientists and observers have noted for their smart behavior.

Honey Bees and Bumble Bees (Bombus Terrestris

The average honey bee may only seem smart to us humans because they always know where the flowers are. Plus, they know to run a hive with efficiency and teamwork. Yet there is more to them than that. 

Honey bees have created their own language through a “waggle dance”. This allows them to tell each other exactly where the food is and how to get there.

Everyone in the hive knows it, and they will communicate the message to all that need to know. 

These honey-makers also have a knack for finding the shortest route to find untouched flowers. It takes serious work to fly from the hive, gather as much pollen as possible, while also keeping your eye out for other possible flowers. 

Bees, including bumblebees, tend to take the shortest route from hive to flower, rather than just going to each flower near the hive, as that kind of predictable behavior could attract predators.

Therefore, the honey bee’s ability to plan and think through how far and where to get pollen next makes this insect rather forward-thinking and definitely smart.

Bumblebees also demonstrate other smart behavior, such as their efforts to keep their beehive at a constant temperature.  

Ants (Formiciadae)

Like bees, ants can be considered intelligent just based on the fact that they cohabit in a social community, which intrinsically takes skills and understanding beyond the grasp of most solitary insects.

But their proofs of intelligence go well beyond that. One of the best pieces of evidence comes from the way that ants line up their food.

Not only do they regularly hoard food and save them for rainy days, but their forays also go much further than gathering, it actually extends into agriculture and herding. 

Farmer ants actually farm a type of fungus which their colony can eat.

They also “herd” aphids, the same way as cowhands herd cattle. They do not eat the aphids, but the excretion from the aphids constitutes food for the ants that herd them.

Leaf-cutter ants are another group that farm. They dissect leaves and carry them back to their anthills.

The leaves are chewed up and mixed with special saliva, which then creates a fungus that can be used to feed the colony. An aligned group of ants actually farm mushrooms similarly.

Cockroaches (Blattodea)

Cockroaches are solitary creatures and not prone to mass communications or a lot of the other types of behaviors that would normally be tagged for smartness.

However, they demonstrate multiple types of behavior that distinctly indicate higher brain functions

One of the more amazing things is how they scout their territories and pick out multiple entry and exit routes.

So, if a roach is startled in the kitchen and appears to scurry away, most people would think that the action is instinctive and the route taken is random. That is not the case. 

Cockroaches actually plan out multiple exit routes from an area that they are forced to evacuate in a hurry.

This type of surveillance and planning is beyond the capability of many animals and possibly even humans. Ergo, it’s a clear sign of intelligence.

The other evidence of intelligence comes from scientific investigation. Roaches have been known to salivate (drool) in response to certain stimuli, such as smells that drift into their orbit.

Researchers have posited that if the cockroaches could be made to react in this one way to stimuli, they could possibly be taught other learned behavior.

Beetles (Coleoptera)

Beetles account for almost 40% of the insects found on earth (and 25% of all life forms), with an astonishing array of species, which some have estimated to be around 400,000 and others have suggested could be as high as 100 million!

Beetles have a tough exterior and typically do not cohabit in large communities; therefore they tend to be skilled at surviving on their own.

The lack of beetles having a group life may lead some to believe that they are not as intelligent because teamwork – which does require the ability of new ways to think to achieve a common goal – is often considered to be a hallmark of smartness. 

Beetles do have their own language; however.  They can “speak” through different means.

One is stridulation, where they communicate by rubbing either their mouthparts or other body parts together or on the ground.

Another means of communication is through the use of pheromones, which beetles use to find mates or deter predators. Some even use bioluminescence

Ladybug beetles scout out the kinds of plants that aphids – which is their food – would like. They then hang around those plants till the aphids descend on the plant.

The other element that points to the smartness of beetles is their prevalence in almost every known habitat on earth.

The number of obstacles, environments, and predators they face is almost unimaginable. Yet they continue to survive and thrive, which means they are doing something right.

Butterflies (Rhopalocera)

Some may think of butterflies as pretty insects that just flit from flower to flower all day. Did you know they remember which flowers are more abundant than others?

There are still ongoing studies in this area, but for a few days at a time, a butterfly is able to remember which color flowers have the most nectar available for them to feed on. 

The behavior that butterflies display in terms of remembering the routes to various sources of nectar is called “traplining”.

This refers to the fact that they can remember distinct routes to flowers with the most nectar, and are able to change that route if they encounter predators along that route.

Butterflies don’t communicate like the honey bees, but they do still talk to each other. Butterflies mostly only communicate with each other to mate, using pheromones, like the beetles.

Some butterflies will even produce sounds that are directed towards other insects, like ants, that are known to protect the butterflies against predators. 

Grasshoppers (Caelifera)

Grasshoppers mostly eat vegetation; they are not picky eaters. Since greenery is easy to come by in their native habitats, the proof of grasshoppers’ smarts has to be found elsewhere. 

One of the ways they demonstrate smartness is through their ability to release chemicals to hide from predators.

What’s even more interesting is that while some grasshoppers actually excrete toxic material, others can successfully mimic the toxicity in order to be left alone. 

When food is low, some grasshoppers will become locusts. They will change color from green to yellow and black. Then they team up with other solitary grasshoppers and “swarm” crops.

This means that they will come together to find food, and they will even occasionally eat each other. These grasshoppers turned locusts are called “gregarious locusts”, by virtue of their turn from solitary to group insects.

Grasshoppers will also eat each other if the population has grown too high, and the first eaten are the ones that aren’t able to keep up. 

Flies (Diptera)

Flies don’t seem to know how to do anything but annoy us with their buzzing, but if you look beyond first impressions, you will find that they might know what they are doing

Flies do have the capacity to think about their decisions before they make them. They let the information soak in, using a sole FoxP gene to take decisions.

Humans have four of these genes, which are believed to control the connection between neurons. This is a surefire sign of intelligence, to move from automatic impulse to reasoned thinking. 

Flies are also able to feel fear. Now, this could be considered instinctual, but emotions are a strong tool used to aid survival, not only in flies but in humans as well.

One study shows that once scared from a food source, the fly remembers the traumatic experience and will take longer to return. If flies can feel fear, what other emotions are they capable of? 

Tarantula Hawks (Pepsini)

This evidence is a little macabre, but still a surefire sign of intelligence.

Tarantula hawks are actually a type of wasp, hence an insect, which possesses a venom powerful enough to paralyze and debilitate a tarantula.

The female performs this action when she is pregnant, eventually laying eggs inside the tarantula’s stomach.

The larvae that emerge then feed on the innards of the tarantula, literally eating it alive from the inside to gain sustenance as it grows, moving to the pupal stage and beyond.

The sign of intelligence? The larvae do not touch the vital organs till the very last stage of their development, essentially leaving their victim (and food source) alive (and fresh) till such time that they do not need it anymore.

That’s smart for the kids!

Praying Mantises (Mantodea)

It’s well known that praying mantises have outstanding vision due to the way they can swivel their heads.

What scientists have found with further research is that their two large, forward-looking eyes have the ability to create a type of 3D depth perception that – while not similar to us humans – allows them to not only identify the distance of other objects and living things but may actually create the capability for them to recognize familiar objects and even faces.

While the number of neurons in their brains is woefully inadequate for praying mantises to be called intelligent, there are many reports of them being able to detect differences between living objects, recognize different types of food sources and predators, and even pet owners.

Termites (Termitidae)

Termites began to exhibit group behavior 200 million years ago, way before some of their fellow insects like ants and bees.

Similarly, they had started farming fungus significantly before other insects. Their group behavior patterns are also varied and extraordinary.

Termites have a history of not only living in tough environments all over the world but actually making them habitable through the way they aerate the soil and environment.

Termites in colonies live in symbiosis, to the extent that they will feed each other through their mouth or anus.

One outstanding example is with soldier termites, whose mouths gape so big due to their jaws that they cannot really feed themselves,

The Final Word and some food for thoughts!

As the instances cited above show, we live in a strange and wonderful world.

The insects mentioned exhibit just a few examples of intelligent behavior that lead us to characterize them as being among the smartest insects in the world.

Truth be told, there are hundreds of other examples that can be dug up, all pointing out that smartness can extend beyond the conventional definition that humans ascribe to it.

Alright, that’s it for this article, here are a few hand-selected articles that you might also find interesting reads:

7 Of The Loudest Insects In The World Ranked By Decibels

The Unlucky 13: Insects with the Shortest Life Spans

Top 10 fastest flying insects in the world

Steve Foster

Mad about bugs and wanting to publish as many articles as I can to help educate people about these amazing beautiful creatures! For more info check out my about page https://schoolofbugs.com/about-steve-foster/

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