Are There Really Dead Wasps in Your Figs?

white bowl of cut figs

Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick 

If, like me, you think of the year in relation to the fruits that are ripe at various times, you know that we just passed peach and plum time and that it is currently prime fig season. And you might have heard this crazy-sounding rumor that's going around, that there are dead wasps inside your figs.

It turns out it's not so crazy after all.

Why Figs Need Wasps

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

First, it's important to understand that figs aren't technically a fruit; they're actually an inverted flower. So the fig blooms inside its pod. As you know, flowers need to be pollinated so that they can reproduce, but since a fig's flower is hidden inside itself, that means its pollinator — in this case, the fig wasp — needs to crawl inside the fig to bring the pollen directly to the flower.

This relationship with the special wasps and the figs is, as the video above explains, mutually beneficial since both the fig and the wasp need each other to successfully reproduce. In biology, this kind of relationship is referred to as mutualism.

How Wasps Pollinate Figs

closeup of figs on fig tree
Treehugger / Kaitlyn Kilpatrick

Here's the life cycle: 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 know they need to get inside a fig to lay their eggs, so they crawl inside both male and female figs to try to do that. The female wasp burrows inside the fig through a narrow opening called an ostiole. If she arrives in a male fig, she is able to lay her eggs in an ideal environment and then dies. Her eggs hatch, with males hatching first (they are blind and flightless) and 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 a female burrows into a female fig, she can't lay her eggs and dies of starvation. However, she does bring pollen into the internal flowers of the fig, pollinating it. After that, the figs quickly ripens, and people (and other animals) like to eat them.

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

So yes, there is at least one dead wasp inside the figs that we like to eat.

Don't worry! We don't end up chomping on wasp exoskeleton. The figs produce ficin, a special enzyme that breaks down the insect's body into proteins that get absorbed by the plant. So the crunches you feel when you are chewing a fig are simply the seeds, not sacrificial wasps.