If you’ve ever eaten a fig, you may be surprised to learn that a tiny wasp is responsible for the fruit’s existence. The fig wasp is a fascinating insect that plays a vital role in the ecosystem as well as in the production of figs. My background in biology has always drawn me to this incredibly interesting relationship between figs and fig wasps.
Fig wasps belong to the superfamily Chalcidoidea and play a crucial role in the life cycle of fig trees. These tiny insects are responsible for pollinating the world’s 900 species of figs, with each species of wasp dedicated to pollinating a specific species of fig. This incredible symbiotic relationship showcases the intricate balance of nature.
When I first heard about fig wasps, I couldn’t help but wonder how these small creatures contribute to the pollination process. Female fig wasps force their way into nonedible, unripe male figs where they lay their eggs in the flowers.
As they enter the fig, they also bring pollen from the figs they’ve previously visited, thus pollinating the fig tree. The larvae then feed on the fig tissues and eventually exit the fig, carrying pollen with them and continuing the pollination cycle.
The life and death of fig wasps are intertwined with the fig trees they pollinate. Though it might sound strange to some, understanding this mechanism only deepens my appreciation of these nutritious and delicious fruits.
In this article, you’ll learn everything there is to fig wasp, including their life cycle, mutualism with figs, and I’ll answer the question do figs have dead wasps in them in detail in this article.
What is a Fig Wasp?
The fig wasp belongs to the family Agaonidae, which is made up of over 1000 species of tiny wasps that are specialized to pollinate figs. These wasps are so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye, measuring only about 1-2 millimeters in length. They have a unique life cycle that is closely intertwined with that of the fig tree.
Fig wasps are fascinating creatures that have co-evolved with fig trees for millions of years. They are so intimately tied to the life cycle of the fig tree that they cannot survive without it. In fact, fig wasps are the only pollinators of fig trees, and fig trees are the only host plants for fig wasps.
There are over 750 species of fig trees and over 900 species of fig wasps. Each species of fig tree has its own corresponding species of fig wasp, and the two have evolved together in a mutually beneficial relationship called mutualism. The fig tree provides a home for the fig wasp to lay its eggs, and in return, the fig wasp pollinates the fig tree.
Lifecycle of a Fig Wasp
As the plant’s sole pollinator, fig wasps perform an important part in its life cycle. This implies that fig wasps are responsible for transporting pollen from one fig plant to another. In exchange, the plant serves as the only source of food and shelter for fig wasps.
As I mentioned above, this arrangement is known as mutualism. Both the plant and the wasp rely on the arrangement to thrive, and without one, the other would not exist.
But to truly understand the wasp-eating paradox linked with figs, it’s necessary to first look at the closely related life cycles of both the plant and the insect. The two’s current mutual connection did not develop overnight. It is the culmination of millions of years of evolution.
The Relationship Between Fig Plant and Fig Wasp
Both the fig plant and the fig wasp are interested in reproduction. In order for this to take happen for fig plants, one fig plant must exchange its genetic material in the form of pollen with another fig plant of the same species.
And for the fig wasp, it needs to have a suitable environment in which its larvae may grow and eat food. The fig wasp is like a renter, and the fig plant is like an owner who gets paid in pollen.
What we refer to as a fig, is the the syconium which is more of an inverted flower than a fruit, as all of its reproductive systems are located within.
In order to lay her eggs, a female fig wasp must travel to the middle of the syconium after flying over from the fig plant she emerged from.
She goes down an ostiole, which is a narrow passage, to get there. The narrow tube causes the little fig wasp to lose her wings and antenna during this journey.
Two Different Types of Figs
There’s no going back out and flying to another plant once she’s inside but she first has to consider if she’s in the right place to begin with. This is because there are two kinds of figs that grow on fig plants, the male caprifigs and the female edible figs.
A female wasp will find male flower parts exactly designed to store the eggs she will eventually lay if she enters a caprifig. The eggs hatch into larvae, which mature into male and female wasps. The blind, wingless male wasps that hatch will spend the rest of their life digging tunnels through the fig. The female wasps then emerge from these tunnels and fly off to find a new fig, carrying pollen with them.
A female fig wasp will die from weariness or starvation if she enters an edible fig. The female flower parts aren’t the right shape for her to be able to lay her eggs. Even though she might die, she is successful in providing the essential pollen first. So a fig farmer ends up having caprifigs filled with wasp eggs and edible figs filled with seeds.
Do Figs Have Wasps In Them?
Even though edible figs may not contain baby wasps, does this not imply that they contain a large number of dead female wasps?
Wasps pollinate the majority of commercially grown figs. Yes, edible figs do include at least one dead female wasp. However, it is not quite the urban legend that fruits contain insect meat.
When a female wasp dies within an edible fig, an enzyme known as ficin in the fig breaks down her carcass into protein. The fig essentially digests the dead insect, incorporating it into the resulting ripened fruit.
So despite popular belief, the crunchy bits in figs are actually seeds and not the skeletal parts of a wasp.
How Fig Farmers Prevent Overpollination by Fig Wasps
Fig farmers want to make sure that as few wasps as possible get into edible figs. Although the insect’s cooperation is required for the fig to ripen, an excessive number of wasps will result in overpollination. The fig may then be so densely packed with seeds that the fruit-like syconium bursts open.
Even though this is good for the plant, it makes it harder for farmers to get a good crop. To stop this from happening, gardeners put male and female trees far away from each other.
Farmers also provide a predetermined number of new wasps, frequently distributed in paper sacks, to regulate the number of females that have access to a given plant. This implies there will be fewer wasps within when it comes time to harvest.
Am I Eating Dead Fig Wasps in Figs?
It’s important not to worry too much about accidentally eating an insect every now and then.
Even with contemporary pest management, insects infect most agricultural products during harvest and transportation. The majority of foods contain insects from canned corn to specialty coffee.
For example when chocolate qualifies for the highest USDA grade standard possible, it may contain up to a kilogram of insect parts in 100 kilograms of chocolate.
Other Wasp Guides from Planet Natural:
Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa's work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.