The fig and the wasp

The flowers of a fig tree are completely concealed within a vase-like structure called a syconium.Illustration: Lukas Hochenleitter und Kompagnie. ( and Photo: Shadle, Wikimedia Commons

The flowers of a fig tree are completely concealed within a vase-like structure called a syconium.Illustration: Lukas Hochenleitter und Kompagnie. ( and Photo: Shadle, Wikimedia Commons  

Figs and wasps share a special bond. They cannot survive without each other. Read on to find out why...

Yoo-hoo—over here! It’s me, the old fig tree. I’m so glad you chose to read your book under me.

You know, I feel rather hopeful for the shape of things to come. My branches are heavy with rich, juicy fruit. I love it when they swivel and sway, herded by the tender wind.

Here, this delicious fig is for you!

Would you like to know how this particular fig came to be? It’s a terrific story (if I may say so myself); let me tell you about it.

Some time ago, as I was wallowing in the warmth of the midday sun, I saw a mother wasp buzzing around me, searching for a suitable fig to enter and lay her eggs in.

You see, we fig trees need fig wasps to turn our flowers into ripe fruits with plenty of seeds. But you’ll be surprised to know that our flowers are not at all like the colourful, flamboyant flowers you love so much. From the outside, our flowers look just like our fruits—they are enclosed in a vase-shaped structure that resembles a fruit!

Such a gorgeous little thing she was, that mother wasp, with her inquisitive eyes and delicate filigreed wings! I helped her pick one of my figs that I knew was perfect for her. Her name was Mira.

She entered this very fig through a tiny hole at the bottom. Poor Mira, she struggled to get through that narrow opening. Her wings and antennae were ripped apart, but Mira, she was such a fighter!

When she finally made it in, she was greeted by a bed of tiny flowers. It reminded her of the place she was born in! She laid her eggs in the flowers, and deposited the pollen that she was carrying with her from the fig she grew up in. (You see, Mira’s mother went through a similar journey, and Mira was once just an egg inside a fig too.)

The pollen she was carrying is what turned my flowers into the succulent fruit that you’re munching on right now!

I thanked her, and promised that would take good care of her little ones. Having fruitfully completed what she had set out to do, she bid farewell to her eggs, lay down on the flowers and died peacefully.

I waited excitedly for her eggs to hatch. Her larvae made sumptuous meals out of some of my developing seeds and finally grew into adult wasps. The wingless males mated with the females and chewed open tiny holes in the fig so that the females could escape, but the males never left.

The females then collected plenty of pollen from my flowers, and off they went to find their own perfect fig to lay their eggs in!

Fig trees like me and fig wasps like Mira can’t possibly survive without each other. We figs wouldn’t be able to make seeds if it wasn’t for them because there wouldn’t be anybody to pollinate our flowers; and they wouldn’t be able to raise their young if they didn’t have our figs to breed in.

And now, thanks to Mira, and other wasps like her, so many of my figs are fresh and ripe, waiting to be gorged on by hornbills, barbets and fruit bats!

Aha, here they come! See those grey hornbills on my topmost branch? They look like they’re savouring my figs, don’t they? I hope with all my heart that they take my seeds far away, where they can take root and grow into beautiful little fig trees that look just like their mama!

There are more than 700 kinds of figs! Almost every species of fig has its own specialized species of wasp that fertilizes it.

The fleshy structure that we call the fig’s fruit, is not actually a fruit, it is an inflorescence—a collection of numerous specialized flowers and seeds.

The wingless and almost blind male fig wasps never leave the fig—they complete their entire life cycle inside of it.

Many of the commercially cultivated varieties of fig that we find in the market do not require pollination or fig wasps to produce fruit. These fig trees grow from cuttings.

Recommended for you