Every species of fig tree is pollinated by very small wasps. As the fig fruit develops, it releases a scent that attracts female fig wasps. Then, the wasp enters the fig, lays its egg in the seeds within the fruit, and dies. Once the wasp eggs hatch, they develop and grow into mature wasps. Then, they exit, taking the pollen from the fig they were born inside. They carry this pollen to the next fig tree.
Do Figs Need to Be Pollinated?
Almost every fig tree that you purchase at a nursery does not need to be pollinated to produce fruit. Instead, nurseries sell female fig trees that produce fruit parthenocarpically—without pollination. Because the majority of figs grown for food are not native to North America, the wasps needed for pollination are not present in the ecosystem. So, fig farmers and home gardeners grow figs without any pollination or wasps involved.
Why Do Figs Need Wasps for Pollination?
Fig trees do not bloom or have external flowers, so more common pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds cannot pollinate fig trees. Fig fruits are unique because they are actually an “inflorescence,” which means the flowers are contained inside the fruit. Due to this, pollinating wasps must enter the fig fruit to pollinate the flowers within.
How Wasps Pollinate a Fig in 6 Steps
Fig pollination by wasp is an amazing example of coevolution, where wasps and figs have evolved to help one another. Here’s how it works:
Figs Attract Pollinating Wasps
As the fig fruit grows, it releases a sweet scent that attracts the wasp species responsible for pollinating the fig. In this sense, figs are very similar to flowering plants, which attract pollinating insects with the scent of their blossoms. In this case, it is the fruit itself that draws the pollinators.
A Female Wasp Enters the Fig
Drawn by the scent of the maturing fig fruit, a female wasp will land on the fig. Then, the wasp enters the fig by burrowing through a small opening at the bottom of the fruit. You can see this opening yourself. The next time you handle a fig, look at the bottom. You will see a circular opening surrounded by a star-shaped pattern of fruit “petals.” This is where the pollinating wasp enters.
The Wasp Lays its Eggs
Once the female wasp burrows inside the fig fruit, it moves between the tiny flowers inside the fig. It lays its eggs inside the seeds contained within each flower. During this process, the wasp pollinates the flowers inside the fig. Since these wasps are born inside figs, they carry pollen from their birth tree to another tree. This allows cross-pollination between figs.
The Female Wasp Dies
After laying its eggs inside the fig, the female wasp then dies inside the fruit. This may sound unappealing since you probably don’t want to eat figs with dead wasps inside. However, figs produce an enzyme called ficin that dissolves the wasp’s body and uses it to fuel the growth of the tree. So, even a pollinated fig won’t have any dead wasps inside!
The Baby Wasps Hatch and Grow
After the mother dies, the eggs she laid develop and hatch into tiny larvae. The larvae feed and develop. Then, the male wasps mate with the female wasps. At this point, the male wasps die. Much like their mother, they are dissolved by the ficin enzyme in the fig. Since fig wasps are between one and two millimeters long, they are tiny and easily dissolved by ficin enzymes.
Young Wasps Leave to Pollinate Other Figs
After the male wasps die, the female wasps inside the fig begin to leave. At this point, the flowers inside the fig fruit have opened. The pollen on the flowers sticks to the female wasps as they make their way to the exit. Then, these females carry the pollen from this fruit to another fig, to repeat the process.
Is the Inside of a Fig Wasp Eggs?
The crunchy parts and small round objects inside figs are not wasp eggs. These parts of the fruit are buds and seeds of the flowers that form inside the fig fruit. Additionally, most cultivars of figs grown for human consumption do not require pollination at all, so there were never any wasp eggs inside to start with. If a fig was pollinated by wasps, the wasps and any egg remains will be dissolved by the fig enzymes by the time the fruit ripens. So, you do not have to worry about eating wasp eggs when you have a fig.
Is There a Wasp Inside Every Fig?
Most figs you find in a store or grow in your backyard never had a wasp inside. This is because the majority of fig fruits are grown on trees that do not require pollination. Even if a fig you eat was pollinated by a wasp, you will not find a dead wasp inside. The tiny fig-pollinating wasp that enters a fig is dissolved by the fig’s enzymes after it lays its eggs and dies.
How Do Figs Pollinate Without Wasps?
Figs cannot be pollinated without the aid of fig wasps. In many cases, this is fine. Parthenocarpic fig cultivars produce fruit without being pollinated. So, wasps are not required for fig farmers. This allows you to grow delicious figs in regions where there are no fig wasps. But, cross-breeding figs does require pollination by wasps.
Can Figs Reproduce Without Wasps?
A fig that has not been pollinated by wasps cannot produce fertile seeds that will sprout into a new fig plant. However, you do not need to use wasps to grow additional fig trees from your main tree. Instead, you can cut a small branch off your fig tree and encourage the cutting to grow into a new tree. Propagating a new fig from a cutting requires specific steps and adequate sunlight for your fig. However, it’s much easier than finding a female fig wasp that has evolved to pollinate your specific fig variety.
Is it True That Wasps Lay Eggs in Figs?
Wasps do lay eggs in fig fruits as part of the pollination process. Here’s how it works:
- Fig fruits release a scent that attracts a fig-pollinating wasp.
- A female fig wasp crawls into the fig fruit through an opening at the bottom.
- The wasp lays her eggs inside the fig seeds.
- After laying her eggs, the wasp dies and is dissolved by the fig’s enzymes.
- The wasp eggs hatch and develop to maturity.
- Pollen inside the fig fruit collects on the young wasps as they exit the fig to pollinate another fig.
Fig-wasp mutualism is a fascinating biological system. However, since most fig cultivars grown for food or sold in nurseries produce fruit without pollination, you do not have to worry about finding any wasps in your figs.