Edible Symbiosis

i-cfa8a806bd8360e62b44cfa95a0a05a5-800px-Fig_interior-thumb-250x187-55496.jpgA delightful lunch conversation about fruits introduced me to what may be my new favorite symbiotic relationship! Figs are not actually fruits but a mass of inverted flowers and seeds that are pollinated by a species of tiny symbiotic wasps. The male fig flower is the only place where the female wasp can lay her eggs, at the bottom of a narrow opening in the fruit that she shimmies her way through. The baby wasps mature inside the fig into males that have sharp teeth but no wings and females ready to fly. They mate, the males chew through the special fig pollen holders and drop them down to the females, chew holes in the skin of the fig to let the females out, and then die. The females, armed with the pollen, fly off in search of new male figs to lay her eggs in. In the process some of the female wasps land on female figs that don't have the special egg receptacle but trick the female into shimmying inside. As the female wasp slides through the narrow passage in the fig her wings are ripped off (egg laying is a one-way mission) and while she is unsuccessful in laying her eggs, she successfully pollinates the female flower. The female flower then ripens into the fig that you can get at the supermarket, digesting the trapped wasp inside with specialized enzymes! For the females that managed to lay their eggs the life cycle continues with a new brood of tiny wasps ready to mate and pollinate.

There is a whole PBS special about figs that I really want to watch now, here are some clips from youtube:

Thanks to Mara for teaching me about the wonders of figs!

UPDATE: Oooh ooh also check out this great post about mutualism and active vs. passive pollination of figs over at Observations of a Nerd!

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okay, i've officially eaten my last fig. ew.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 07 Sep 2010 #permalink

Amazing stuff. I would have never known that these obscure members of the produce section have a story that puts most sci-fi to shame...probably won't eat any for awhile though.

Do figs ripen edible fruit even without pollination? I'm sure I heard that figs can be cultivated well outside the natural range of the wasp, but if they require pollination, how do you do it mechanically, or do you have to stimulate fruit formation chemically? (Propogation seems to be vegetative for commercial clones, of course, but if you don't pollinate somehow, can you only breed new cultivars within the wasp's range?)

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 07 Sep 2010 #permalink

Isn't botany wonderful, although woefully under represented at Science blogs and other similar sites! Figs are fruits, but just not typical fruits, and there are many other exceptions to the one flower one fruit overly simplistic definitions common to textbooks. Figs can and do develop without pollination, but their biology does give one pause about the crunchy little bits in their fig cookies.

We eat bugs all the time, and not just lobsters: two thirds of humans on the planet go to markets where bugs have been farmed as produce, or to termite mounds which might as well have a McDonalds sign over them, etc. There are dozens on dozens of English language websites that documents the Joys of Cooking with Bugs, Insects, Edible Insects, Arachnids -- those are all actual titles of actual books. And the rest of us eat them and their parts as an ingredient in just about everything we eat.

And none of this includes bacteria, on which I expect Oscillator could write a whole book about what a huge part of our regular supposedly-non-whipped buggy diets relies on the actions of various bacterium.

With continued rapid depletion of the fish stocks from the oceans, an unsustainable energy exchange with raising meat animals, and the high incidence of risks from communicable diseases via poultry products, it is time for us to get the bugs out of our closets and pantries and onto our plates.

(I think it will prove a lot easier, and sooner, for this to happen, than to get that flying spaghetti monster out of our classrooms and legislatures.)

By Plinthy The Middling (not verified) on 08 Sep 2010 #permalink

Only some kinds of figs (so called 'Smyrna' types) are pollenated by wasps. The vast majority of figs eaten come from varieties that produce fruit parthenocarpically. It is highly unlikely that the fig you ate at the supermarket was of a variety pollenated by wasps: most north american commercial figs are not. So..this article highlighted a natural wonder, but did so in a fashion which still revealed a high degree of misunderstanding of the topic: kind of strange, in a way. Parthenocarpy is at least as fascinating, if not more so, than the symbiosis between plant and insect.

I am a vegan but 2mm long bugs that have been dissolved don't bother me.

The easiest job on the Spanish farm I worked on was caprification. Take the ripe fruit off a "wild fig" and distribute them around the commercial varieties, at least a couple of bunches per tree. The fig wasps got two generations in per year there.

Some figs in Africa are said to be caprified with Artemisisa judaica. As far as I know they have not been tested but many Artemisias produce lots of methyljasmonate.

Another weird fig (amongst a very weird genus with strangler figs and banyans) is the sycomore fig, Ficus sycomorus. It produce a potable "milk", the latex being quite tasty, apparently. I really want to try it.

Sorry, that should have been Artemisia judaica, of course.

you are hilarious, correcting types on words no-one else has ever heard of! you had an interesting job. now I have to google fig latex milk. sounds better than whale milk, my last google research project!

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