There Might Be A Dead Wasp In Your Fig

We know that eating bugs is a trend, but we're not sure it's one we'd like to partake in unknowingly. How'd you like to bite into a delicious fig and chow down on a dead wasp in the process? Us either. It happens, though, and it all has to do with how some figs reproduce.

Related: Fruits And Vegetables Looked Very Different Before Humans Intervened

Wait, But Why?

A fig is an example of a syconium—basically, an inside-out cluster of flowers. Flowers reproduce through the process of pollination, which gets its help from flying insects—in this case, wasps. The wasps, however, require something in return, making this what's known as a mutualistic relationship.

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How Stuff Works gives this metaphor: "Think of the fig wasp as a tenant, and the fig plant as a landlord who takes payment in the form of pollen." The wasps collect the fig's pollen and help it reproduce, while the fig gives the wasps a home base for their larvae to feed and develop. But how and why do the wasps get inside the fruit in the first place? We're used to seeing figs as fully ripened fruit, but before they're pollinated, there's actually plenty of room in there for a female wasp to lay her eggs in the tiny flowers. She reaches those flowers by flying through a narrow passageway, usually losing her wings and antennae in the process. The eggs grow into larvae, then young wasps. The male wasps spend their lives digging tunnels through the figs from which the females can emerge until—you guessed it—they die. If a female wasp chooses the wrong fig tree, however, she'll die too.

Say What?

Related: Cashews Grow With Apples Attached

Let's take a step back. Female wasps can only lay eggs in the figs from male trees, not female ones. But here's where it gets tricky: they can't tell them apart. If they accidentally lay their eggs in the female figs, they'll die there. But there's good news for all you fig eaters—these probably aren't the figs you're buying from the supermarket. The figs we typically eat are "common figs," which have been bred to either be seedless or to have both male and female trees for cross pollination. We only eat the female figs. Even if there is an accidental wasp death in your fig, How Stuff Works explains that the carcass is digested into a protein by an enzyme in the fig called ficin. And who doesn't need more protein? OK, that's still kind of gross.

Bonus fact: Mankind has been domesticating fig trees for more than 11,000 years. The edible fig is one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans, and figs play such a central role in humanity that they're included in the texts of several religions, including Buddhism and Christianity.

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Written by Curiosity Staff January 26, 2017

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