The Disturbing Truth About Figs

By S. Grant on Sunday, June 8, 2014
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“No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” —Epictetus, Discourses

In A Nutshell

If you always thought your childhood friends were pulling your leg when they told you figs were full of dead insects, it turns out they were right and you were wrong. Indeed, figs do contain digested wasps, which become trapped inside the fruit during pollination. Without this gross and deadly cycle, neither the fig tree nor the wasp could reproduce.

The Whole Bushel

Figs are sweet, chewy, healthy, and yes, they do contain the digested remains of dead wasps. How did the wasps get in there? And why, if this knowledge exists, are figgy baked goods still flying off store shelves? The bizarre truth has to do with reproduction.

The whole fig-wasp relationship boils down to the fact that neither of them are very efficient reproducers; they just found an unusual way to help each other. The fig “fruit” is actually an inverted flower known as a syconium. But, because it’s inverted, most pollinating insects just can’t get to the pollen. Without pollinators, the fig tree wouldn’t bear fruit or seeds and would fail at its fundamental purpose: to produce offspring. Luckily, there is one insect, the fig wasp, that’s figured out a way to travel into the syconium and consequently pollinate the plant. Unfortunately for the wasp, the journey into the fig is a one-way trip.

Still, it isn’t all bad news for fig wasps. As mentioned, these wasps are inefficient reproducers. They need a very specific environment in which to grow and feed their larvae. It just so happens the inside of the fig is the perfect wasp nursery. So, the female wasp will travel into the fig through a tiny passage known as the ostiole. The only problem is the ostiole is so narrow the wasp’s wings and antennas are torn off as she moves down the passage, which means she’s never getting out of there. Nevertheless, this kamikaze mission has enabled her to find the ideal place to lay and nurture her eggs.

But wait, how was the fig pollinated if the wasps can only ever get inside one fig flower? Well, once the eggs are hatched, there are a bunch of male and female baby wasps. After mating, the males spend all of their short existence tunneling through the fig, so the females will have an escape route when they are fully developed. Once a female flies out, she carries a bit of pollen with her and delivers it to whatever fig she flies into next. Of course, that’s also the last fig she’ll ever crawl into. And, to complicate matters further, if she enters a “female” syconium (figs have both male and female flowers) she won’t find the perfect egg-laying ground that she’s after (as in the male syconium) and instead will get lost and eventually die in a long stylus. Although she wouldn’t be able to lay her eggs, she would have successfully pollinated the fig tree.

So now to the big question: Does this mean every time we eat a fig we’re consuming bits of suicidal female wasps and her dead male offspring? Kind of, but not really. Figs have an enzyme called ficin that breaks down the deceased wasps into protein, which become part of the ripened fruit. Nothing of the actual wasp body remains. The crunchy parts of the fig fruit are actually seeds and not leftover wasp pieces.

If you still can’t stomach eating something that was once part-wasp, there are some varieties of self-pollinating figs (usually for home growers) that don’t even involve wasps. Either way, we’ll bet you never look at a fig the same again.

Show Me The Proof

Encyclopedia Britannica: fig wasp (insect)
HowStuffWorks: Are figs really full of baby wasps?