Meet 10 of the Smartest and Most Clever Insects on the Planet

Close up view of the working bees on honey cells
© StudioSmart/Shutterstock.com

Written by Samuel Christopher

Updated: October 24, 2023

Share on:

Advertisement


Insects aren’t usually what you think of when you think of intelligent animals. However, this is somewhat surprising because many insects display several of the characteristics that we generally associate with intelligence in other animals and ourselves.

The nature of insect intelligence also offers an interesting view into the philosophy and science surrounding our conceptions of intelligence. Are most insects stupid, or do they just think and exist in ways radically different than ourselves? Questions like these have perhaps lent inspiration to various works of science fiction. In works like these, insect intelligence has formed the basis for fictional alien intelligence.

Regardless of your opinion about the intelligence of insects, there are several that display characteristics that are inarguably more sophisticated than many of their peers. Here are some examples of such creatures.

1. Honey Bee

A bee flies over a sunflower, pollinates and collects honey

Bees display many coordinated and synchronized behaviors with the members of their hive.

©Alexandrum79/iStock via Getty Images

Overall, honeybees are likely the most intelligent insects on the planet. This is assessed through a number of different criteria and traits that they possess. Many of these make them quite intelligent, even in comparison to more developed organisms, such as primates and dolphins.

Bees are able to identify the faces of individual members of their hive. They also are able to learn and copy the behavior of other bees, which proves to be more efficient. Honey Bees are regularly seen communicating to other members of their hive directions for tasks via wiggling and dancing.

Honeybees have even been shown to understand very basic arithmetic. They also implicitly understand if there is an emergency with their queen. The insects can also delegate specific tasks to individual members of their hive. Qualities like these mean that honeybees stand head and shoulders above the other animals on this list.

2. Ant

Leafcutter ant carrying a leaf to its nest.

Leafcutter ants are observed cultivating fungus from collected leaves.

©Ken Griffiths/Shutterstock.com

Ants are another communally-minded insect species. They often display many of the qualities that we associate with intelligence. Much of this comes through their organized, coordinated group behavior.

Some species of ants have displayed behaviors suggesting that they intentionally cultivate their food. Leafcutter ants allow the leaves they harvest to mold with fungus once brought back to the hive. The ants later consume the fungus that grows on the leaves.

Like bees, ants display the ability to memorize individual faces and presences of members of their hives. They also seem to be quick learners, ones that quickly dispose of behaviors that prove not to be effective.

3. Cockroach

A brown cockroach on a brown wooden background.

These bugs plan their escape routes out of your kitchen.

©iStock.com/Wi6995

Cockroaches aren’t the world’s most popular insect, but they are quite resourceful. Even their biggest critics have given them that.

Roaches are gifted with an incredibly keen sense of smell. They can learn to associate it positively or negatively with different animals and experiences. Some species of cockroaches have displayed behavior that many have interpreted to be individual personality traits. This cockroach is shy, this one is brave, and so on.

Another intelligent aspect of roaches comes in the form of their planned escape routes. Many roaches premeditate the route they will take in their environment when faced with danger. This is an ability associated with higher levels of planning and thought than is usually associated with insects.

4. Termite

large termite mound in typical african landscape with termite in Namibia, North region near Ruacana Fall. Africa wilderness.

Some species of termites construct sophisticated structures.

©Artush/Shutterstock.com

Termites are another very intelligent insect. These master manipulators are quite industrious. They often mold their environments around them in order to fit their preference. Many termites construct quite elaborate lairs and mounds to dwell in, making them one of the chief architects of the insect world.

Termites also exhibit social behaviors of a slightly higher caliber than many other insects. They also have been observed tending to the soil that they eventually use to build their homes.

5. Paper Wasp

Paper wasp

Paper Wasps can recognize individuals in their hive.

©Pavel Krasensky/Shutterstock.com

These types of wasps are another intelligent member of the insect kingdom. These crafty insects are often observed recognizing each other on an individual basis. These wasps live in hives with multiple queens, where the dominant queen gets to lay the most eggs. The facial recognition abilities of wasps help them organize around this complicated setup.

The wasps also display the intelligence characteristic known as transitive inference. This cognitive ability allows them to more fully realize the relationships between disparate things. The ability to recognize differences in sets of objects is likely related to the fact that their hives are set up with multiple queens.

6. Dragonfly

Macro photography. Beautiful yellow-orange insect with wings on a green background close up. It is female dragonfly Macrodiplax cora. Macrodiplax is a genus of dragonflies in the family Libellulidae.

Dragonflies are able to focus their attention.

©LifeCollectionPhotography/Shutterstock.com

These insects have made the list due to their ability to display a certain characteristic that many scientists associate with intelligence: selective intelligence. While hunting, a dragonfly can filter out a large amount of extraneous information to focus on the object of their attention.

Many have presumed this characteristic is only present in higher-level mammals and primates. However, dragonflies display it as they hunt for prey. This contributes to their very high success rates as predators. Some studies have ranked them as the most successful predators in the animal kingdom.

7. Monarch Butterfly

group of monarch butterflies in sky with storm clouds

Monarch Butterflies seem to display collective memory.

©iStock.com/dottedhippo

These revered butterflies are another insect that displays intelligent characteristics. These insects participate in the longest migration in the insect kingdom. The butterflies travel over 3,000 miles from Southern Canada down into California and Mexico.

The fact that millions of insects can collectively move together suggests some form of animal or collective intelligence at play. Although, it could be argued that these are just instincts. How the monarchs transmit the information that guides them along on their journey is somewhat of a mystery.

8. Dung Beetle

Dung beetles with a dung ball.

Dung Beetles use the stars to navigate.

©Neil Bromhall/Shutterstock.com

These beetles are another relatively intelligent insect. In their own comical way, these insects even display rudimentary tool use – through the use of their infamous balls of dung.

Dung Beetles also display an extremely interesting characteristic unique to the animal kingdom. They utilize the stars of the Milky Way Galaxy in order to navigate themselves on their paths as they roll dung. In this way, these beetles aren’t too different from ancient sailors and astronomers, who used the stars to orient themselves on Earth.

These beetles also occasionally display a nastier side of intelligence. These beetles will oftentimes ruthlessly try to steal each other’s dung balls in order to save themselves energy and time.

9. Tarantula Hawk Wasp

Largest Insects - Tarantula Hawks

These wasps save themselves time and energy in the way they use their prey.

©Sari ONeal/Shutterstock.com

Tarantula Hawk Wasps are another species of wasps that display intelligent characteristics. These wasps can save themselves the trouble of feeding their young by giving birth inside their own food source.

These wasps will hunt for a tarantula, sting it with their highly potent venom, and drag the unfortunate arachnid back to their layer. Once there, they lay their eggs in the body of the tarantula. Once the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae feed on the body of the tarantula that they were born on. Gruesome as this is, you can’t help but admire the wasp for its ability to kill two birds with one stone.

10. Praying Mantis

Apex predator: praying mantis

Praying Mantis species seem to display rudimentary memory.

©Ryzhkov Oleksandr/Shutterstock.com

Various mantis species also display intelligent characteristics in many respects. Mantises are often observed returning to places where they previously had successful hunts. This possibly indicates that they have some sort of conception or memory about what works and what doesn’t.

Some studies have shown that male praying mantis assess their potential mates on a variety of characteristics that might be beneficial for survival. This might suggest that there is some level of decision-making above instinct occurring.

NumberName
1Honeybee
2Ant
3Cockroach
4Termite
5Paper Wasp
6Dragonfly
7Monarch Butterfly
8Dung Beetle
9Tarantula Hawk Wasp
10Praying Mantis


Share this post on:

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.