Imagine for a minute that you’re a pregnant woman.
Still with me guys?
Okay, now in this scenario, the only way you can give birth is if you crawl into a small cave made out of chocolate and the tunnel to this cave is so cramped that the only way you can get through is by cutting off your own arms 127 Hours style.
But once you’re in this cave, you can give birth! … And then die from either exhaustion or starvation…
Now this all sounds pretty grim as if giving birth wasn’t difficult enough. Though, what I just described is the life cycle of the fig wasp.
Their role in the pollination of figs is crucial, both to the propagation of their species and to the survival of the fig trees. This arrangement between wasp and plant is called ‘mutualism‘ and its evolved over millions of years. Without the wasps, you wouldn’t have figs and vice-versa.
Yes, this means most of the figs we eat contain at least one dead wasp…
More on that later.
First, lets talk about pollination. The fig is technically just a flower with its petals folded inside. There are male figs which are inedible and called ‘caprifigs‘ and female figs, which are the ones that we eat. In order to create seeds and tasty fruit, the female figs need to receive some pollen from the male figs. Since the figs reproductive bits are tucked away inside, wind and bees can’t help the way they do with many other plants.
Enter the Fig Wasp
For a male fig plant to share its pollen with a female fig plant, a female fig wasp needs to enter a male fig. She crawls through a narrow passage in the fig called the ‘ostiole‘. It’s so cramped that the fig wasp’s wings and antenna snap off along the way but the messed up thing here is that the lady fig wasp doesn’t know whether she’s entering a male, or female fig.
If it’s the male fig, she’ll find its male flower parts are perfectly shaped to lay her eggs into. The eggs hatch into larvae and grow within the figs petals. The male wasps hatch first and are born blind and flightless.
They mate with their female counterparts… Which, are technically siblings.
They live in the Game of Thrones world, it’s fine.
The male wasps will then start eating an exit tunnel through the fig. They cannot escape though, so they die inside. However, the females collect the fig’s pollen, crawl out of the tunnel that their brothers created and fly away in search of a new fig plant to lay their eggs in.
If a female wasp enters a female fig, she won’t be able to lay her eggs because of the long part of the flower called the ‘stylus’. She’ll probably die of loneliness and exhaustion, but at least she’s delivered the pollen!… Right?
And hey, good news for us, an enzyme inside the fig called ‘ficin‘ breaks down her corpse into protein, so, it just ingests the dead wasp and makes it part of the delicious ripened fruit for us to eat!…
Just so we’re clear, those crunchy bits of the fig are in fact the remains of the dead wasp and their larvae.
No, don’t worry, they are the seeds.
Anyway, you should probably get used to the idea of occasionally eating an insect by accident. The FDA considers certain amounts of insect content in various foods ‘natural’ and ‘unavoidable’.
It’s really not hazardous… Just a bit grim.
But hey, if you’re going to give up on figs after reading this, we want to know why in the comment section below! We’d love to hear your thoughts on this horrible realisation…