Not long ago i dropped thousands on a haul of purplish figs at the farmers market. That which was I likely to make? What wasnt I likely to make? Figs in a sensational caprese salad. Figs on yogurt with honey and pine nuts. Figs covered in bacon bits and maple syrup. Then, while doomscrolling, my fig dreams were crushed by one 56-word viral tweet. I learned that lots of figs are pollinated by fig wasps, and that those tiny bugs die inside each fleshy pod. The bounty in my own fridge suddenly took on a sinister quality. I had a need to know: Were most of my figs filled up with dead wasps? The solution, I learned, is both it depends.
But first, exactly what is a fig?
Figs have many secrets. They’re actually inverted flowers. Each hollow ball of vegetal tissue is lined with a huge selection of tiny buds that bloom in the pod, says ecologist Mike Shanahan, writer of Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: THE TRICK History of Fig Trees. The flowerettes using edible varieties produce a fruit-covered seed, that is what gives some figs their iconic crunch. Technically, theyre referred to as aggregate fruits, says Louise Ferguson, an extension specialist at the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. Put simply, the interior of every fig develops from a huge selection of individual fruiting flowers.
How are figs pollinated?
Nowadays most of the fig varieties that people buy in food markets and at farmers markets in america dont require pollination. Mission, those purplish-black ones I purchased, Sierra, Celeste, Adriatic, Kadota, and the Brown Turkey fig can all self-pollinate, says Ferguson. However the Calimyrna, that includes a yellow-green skin and is normally sold dried, requires fig wasps for pollination. Theres no real solution to tell from the exterior, if the fig contains seeds it has been pollinated [by a fig wasp], says Shanahan.
So, whats the offer with fig wasps?
Because sweet, shy figs bloom internally, most of the 800-plus varieties around the world require a romantic kind of pollination to ripen into an edible fruit. All figs are made of both male and female flowers. However the ones we consume are usually harvested from dioecious species, says Shanahan. In these (about 400) varieties, all of the figs on each tree work as either female or male.
To pollinate these species, a lady fig wasp, just a few millimeters long, forces her way right into a nonedible, unripe male-behaving fig where she lays her eggs in the flowers. On the way, her antennae snap and her wings are yanked from her bodyits a good squeeze, says Shanahanleaving her no chance out. Her wingless male offspring mate with the winged female offspring (yes, theyre sisters) before utilizing their huge jaws to chomp tunnels through the fig that may permit the ladies to leave.
But before she bids adieu, that fertilized female wasp collects pollen from the male flowers. Then she squeezes out the engineered escape routes, leaving her brothers and mother for dead in the fig. Its her duty. Out on the planet, she takes flight searching for specific figs, guided by smell, where to lay her eggs. If the feminine wasp enters a male-behaving fig, the procedure repeats identically; she sacrifices her life to help expand the reason. But if she mistakenly burrows right into a female-behaving fig, theres no room on her behalf to lay eggs. She’ll only pollinate these flowers and can die without producing offspring, says Shanahan. These pollinated flowers in the fig pod then produce individual fruits and seeds, which ripen to attract seed-dispersing animals (to poop into more fig trees) and humans like me (to show into baked custard).