Are figs really full of baby wasps?


Is there a female fig wasp stuck in my teeth?
Figs are often dried or pressed into jellies and spreads, but many people consider fresh, ripe figs true delicacies.
Figs are often dried or pressed into jellies and spreads, but many people consider fresh, ripe figs true delicacies.
©iStockphoto.com/Ivan Mateev

Most commercially grown figs are pollinated by wasps. And yes, edible figs wind up with at least one dead female wasp inside. But it's still not quite the childhood myth of fruits squirming with insect meat. It's all part of the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between fig wasp and fig plant.

A few points worth remembering about the wasp content:

1.   When a female wasp dies inside an edible fig, an enzyme in the fig

called ficin breaks down her carcass into protein. The fig basically digests the dead insect, making it a part of the resulting ripened fruit. The crunchy bits in figs are seeds, not anatomical parts of a wasp.

2.   Fig farmers want to keep the number of wasps entering edible figs to an acceptable minimum. While the insect's cooperation is mandatory for the fig to ripen, too many wasps entering will result in over-pollination. Then this fig might be filled with so many seeds that the fruit-like syconium bursts open. While this is good for the plant, it hurts the finished harvest for farmers. To prevent this, farmers separate male and female trees over great distances. Farmers also supply a controlled number of new wasps, often delivered in paper sacks, to dictate exactly how many females have access to a given plant. This means fewer wasps inside when the time comes to harvest.

3.   It's also important not to get too bent out of shape over the possibility of accidently eating the occasional insect. Even with the use of modern pest control, insects partially contaminate most agricultural products upon harvest and on the way to market. From canned corn to curry paste, from premium coffee to peanut butter, most foods contain insects. For example, when tomato ketchup qualifies for the highest USDA grade standard possible, it's required to contain no more than 30 fruit fly eggs per every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) [source: North Carolina State University Department of Entomology].

For some people, no amount of explaining is likely to suffice. Some vegetarians and vegans refuse to eat figs and fig products based on the possibility of insect content. The dead wasps in question, however, were just playing their vital ecological role. There are 900 species of fig wasp, and each is responsible for pollinating one or two species of fig plant. Without these tiny insects, there would be no figs -- and vice versa.

For more information on figs, wasps and other fascinating plant and insect relationships, check out the links below.

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Sources

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  • Armstrong, W.P. "Sexual Suicide" Wayne's World. 1998. (April 18, 2008)http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0701.htm
  • Cook, James M. and Stuart A. West. "Figs and Fig Wasps." Current Biology. Dec. 19, 2005. (April 4, 2008)http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VRT-4HV7CDJ-5&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=1950763e7f59916250a85fa1d1a4ee13
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Online Library. "Fig wasp." 2008. (April 4, 2008)http://library.eb.com/eb/article-9034228
  • Givan, Ray. "The Weird Sex Life of the Fig." Ray's Figs. 1999. (April 4, 2008)http://home.planters.net/~thegivans/figsex.html
  • Lyon, William F. "Insects as Human Food." Ohio State University. (April 18, 2008)http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/2000/2160.html
  • McGregor, S. E., "Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants." USDA. 1976.http://www.beeculture.com/content/pollination_handbook/
  • Meyer, John R. "Insects in Food." North Carolina State University Department of Entomology. Nov. 4, 2003. (April 18, 2008)http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/course/ent425/text18/food.html
  • Noort, Simon van. "Fig Wasps." Iziko South African Museum's Fig Web. (April 4, 2008)http://www.figweb.org/Figs_and_fig_wasps/index.htm
  • Pollock, Dennis. "Central California Fig Growers Fool Wasps to Grow Fruit." The Fresno Bee. June 30, 2005.http://www.enn.com/top_stories/article/1935
  • Simmons, Perez and Howard D. Nelson. "Insects on Dried Fruits." USDA Agricultural Research Service. July, 1975.\www.ars.usda.gov/is/np/insectsdriedfruits/insectsdriedfruits.pdf
  • Stover, Ed, et al. "The Fig: Overview of an Ancient Fruit." USDA Agricultural Research Service. Sept. 7, 2006. (April 18, 2008)http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/publications.htm?seq_no_115=198476

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