Are There Really Dead Wasps in Your Figs?

We unpack the fig-wasp relationship and get to the sweet truth.

white bowl of cut figs

Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick 

Figs are sweet, edible fruit often sold by themselves, in jams, or as a base for desserts. Perhaps you're hesitant to purchase figs after hearing the rumor that there are dead wasps inside them.

It turns out it isn't just a rumor. Here, we unpack the fig-wasp relationship and answer all your questions about what's in your figs.

Why Figs Need Wasps

close up of wasps in a fig plant
Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick

While figs are generally considered a fruit, they are technically also an inverted flower. The fig blooms inside its pod connected to the fig plant.

Flowers must be pollinated in order to reproduce, but since a fig's flower is hidden inside itself, the pollinator must crawl inside the fig to bring the pollen directly to the flower. It is inside the fig flower where female wasps lay eggs.

This relationship between the special fig wasps and the figs themselves is mutually beneficial—both the fig and the wasp need each other to successfully reproduce. In biology, this kind of relationship is referred to as mutualism, when two species impact one another positively.

How Wasps Pollinate Figs

closeup of figs on fig tree
Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick

A young fig tree produces inedible male figs, called caprifigs, which produce pollen. The tree also produces female figs that grow and bloom inside their separate pod, where wind or bees can't pollinate them as they do other flowers.

Female wasps will crawl inside both male and female figs to try to reproduce. They burrow inside the fig through a narrow opening called an ostiole.

If the female wasp arrives in a male fig—also known as a caprifig—she lays her eggs and then dies. Her eggs hatch, with blind, flightless male wasps hatching first. They mate with their female counterparts. The male wasps then burrow a tunnel out of the caprifig, and the females fly out, full of fertilized eggs and carrying pollen, starting the cycle anew.

If the wasp burrows into a female fig, however, she can't lay her eggs and will die of starvation. However, she does bring pollen into the internal flowers of the fig, pollinating it. After that, the figs quickly ripen for people and other animals to eat.

Fig Consumption

closeup of cut figs on dark wooden table
Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick

So, should you be worried about the figs in your kitchen? Technically, there is at least one dead wasp per fig. However, you are in no way eating a live wasp. That wasp exoskeleton is always broken down before we bite into figs.

The figs produce a special enzyme called ficin, which breaks down the insect's body and turn it into protein that gets absorbed by the plant. The crunches you experience when chewing a fig are the fig seeds, not the wasp.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Are figs wasp eggs?

    No. While female wasps lay eggs within a fig fruit, the crunch you experience when eating a fig does not come from those eggs. All wasps have either exited the fig or their exoskeletons have been broken down and absorbed by the fruit.

  • Are figs safe to eat?

    In the context of the pollination process, yes, figs are safe to consume.