Photo: Par Fifty (flickr)
Have you heard the urban legend that the little crunchy seeds in figs are really wasp eggs?
Well, there might be something to that rumor. Most figs wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for special wasp partners that have been co-evolving with fig trees for sixty million years.
Figs have a mutual relationship with a family of tiny wasps called agaonid wasps. Also known as fig wasps, they develop and spend most of their lives inside figs.
Figs can develop fruit only with the help of the wasps. Botanically, a fig isn’t really a fruit, but is a cluster of flowers. The smooth exterior of a fig encloses hundreds of tiny flowers lining a central cavity. Because of their unusual anatomy, fig flowers can only be accessed and pollinated through a very tiny opening at one end of the fig.
The female wasp squeezes into the opening, and lays her eggs inside the fig. As she moves around she distributes pollen, fertilizing the flowers. Figs will only ripen and produce seeds if pollinated.
However, the crunchy things in figs really are just seeds. The young wasps develop inside the fig as it ripens then hatch and mate all within the fruit. The young females then exit the fig before it is completely ripe. However, there aren’t wasp eggs or remnants in ripe figs, because figs produce a protein-digesting enzyme that digests any wasps or eggs left inside. By the time we eat a fig, the wasps have done their work and flown away or were digested by the developing fig.