You might not think of figs as nature’s most amazing creation, but you need only look inside to start to understand their awesome complexity. The fruit is actually an inward-blooming flower, or rather, bundle of flowers—and its survival depends on a tiny insect that gives its life in service of the Ficus carica.
Every single one of the 750-plus species of fig plant has its own fig wasp, and together, the pairs have been evolving together for more than 60 million years, The New Yorker reports. In order to pollinate the plant, a female wasp enters an unripe, male fig (not the ones we eat) and lays her eggs. Once the newborns hatch, they all mate, and the males—born without wings—chew a tunnel out of the fig. Then they die, and the females file out through the escape route to the wide open world, where they take flight in search of another fig tree in which to lay their respective eggs.
Once the females pick a plant, they crawl inside, drop some pollen from their birthfig, as well as their future babies, and the whole thing starts anew.
Now to the mummified wasps. We mentioned earlier that males are pretty much born to mate and then croak, but the females don’t have it much better either. Once they enter a fig to lay their eggs, their wings and antennae are stripped away, leaving the wasp to do her duty and perish. While we don’t eat the figs in which the female usually lays her eggs, occasionally one makes it into the wrong flower, where it dies having not fulfilled its life’s purpose. Those are the sad little insects we end up consuming.
Don’t worry though—not only are the wasps itsy bitsy, but by the time you’re cutting a fig up to put in your morning yogurt, the bug has been (at least mostly) broken down by an enzyme called ficain. The Huffington Post reports that this keeps some vegans away from the fruit, but for everyone else, it’s a pretty negligible fact. So next time you’re chewing on a fig, don’t think about the animal remains, think about the totally remarkable symbiotic process that made it possible.
[h/t The Huffington Post]
Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.