We are generally quite good at imagining what it might be like to be another person.

We seem to think that we can imagine what it is like to be a dog, or a cat, or a hamster.

We are probably pushing the limits when we try to imagine what a bee might experience in its daily life. Yet bees are popular research subjects for neurobiologists, because these insects are capable of very sophisticated behaviours, while their brains are much smaller than ours and therefore easier to study.

But try to imagine what it is like to be a greenhouse whitefly – one of those tiny whitish bugs you may find feeding on the leaves of your plants. (They really are true bugs, not flies.)

And now take it a step further and consider the life of Encarsia formosa. This parasitic wasp lives inside the whitefly as an egg, larva and pupa. It is a wasp, so quite closely related to the bee, and it essentially has all the parts the bee has – wings, legs, a head with eyes and a brain that processes and controls all that. But it is only 0.6mm long!

The scale of things

That just boggles my mind, that something this small can be a fully functional insect with all its operational parts!

In fact, it turns out that this miniaturisation does affect the anatomy and function of the animal. Some of the brain cells of this little wasp have been found to be so small that they can’t possibly be using the same mechanisms to transmit their signals as the neurons of most other animals. Yet they seem to work, so they must have evolved some different way of working than those of other creatures.


Posted by:Andy Giger

Andy is the Science Centre Singapore's Director of Strategy. He is a Neuroscientist who started out studying how Tunisian desert ants navigate, then tamed honey bees to find out more about their visual system, and moved on to counting cockroaches, feeding termites and attracting mosquitoes. Now he deals more with people, and enjoys being in touch with science on a much broader basis.

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