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The life of the fig wasp is nature at its worst—from our human perspective, anyway. In order to lay their eggs, female fig wasps have to squeeze into the flowering body of a fig, losing their wings and antennae along the way. It's all downhill from there.

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Interior fig photo credit: Nikhil More

You know that story about how when you eat a fig, you also eat a wasp?

Well, the truth is, by the time you eat the fig, the fig has already eaten the wasp inside of it. Because this is Bizarre Beasts, we’re not doing a whole episode about figs, but we can’t really tell the story of fig wasps without them either.

Just wanted to get that “eating wasps” thing out of the way first. But, to be honest, the reality of fig wasps isn’t any less weird. Their life cycle really is nature at its worst, from our human perspective, anyway.

In order to lay their eggs, female fig wasps have to squeeze into the flowering body of a fig, losing their wings and antennae along the way. And it’s all just sex and death from here. [♪♪INTRO♪♪] The life of every fig wasp literally begins and ends in, no surprise, a fig. And almost every type of fig has at least one species of fig wasp to pollinate it.

According to one estimate, there may be as many as 10,000 species of fig wasps, that’s almost as many species of fig wasps as there are of birds. And they’re found worldwide in tropical, subtropical, and some temperate zones, wherever fig plants are native. Their relationship is one of nature’s greatest examples of coevolution, likely dating back some 70 to 90 million years.

Neither can exist without the other. Now, what we think of as the fig “fruit” is actually a mass of flowers growing inside a pear-shaped pod, called a syconium. Because the flowers are on the inside, they can’t be pollinated by bees or butterflies just flitting from one plant to the next.

This is where the female fig wasp comes in. Compared to the male, she is a world traveler, having been born in one fig, getting the chance to explore the world briefly, and picking a new, unripe fig to lay her eggs in. The 1 to 2 millimeter-long female may fly more than 10 kilometers to find the perfect fig, that’s kind of like if every human woman covered the distance from LA to Iceland to find a mate.

It’s quite a journey for a wasp who’ll probably live only a few days. But how does she get inside the fig once she finds it? This is where things start to get messy.

There’s a teeny tiny hole at the bottom called an ostiole that she can squeeze through. But along the way, she usually ends up ripping off her antennae and wings to fit. It doesn’t matter much to her though.

She doesn’t need them. She won’t be leaving the fig again. Once she’s inside the fig, she burrows around its flowers and sheds the pollen she brought with her from her birth fig.

She pollinates her new fig, lays her eggs, and then she dies. And the brief life of the male fig wasp, if it’s possible, is even weirder. The new males emerge first, breaking out of the protective little capsules of malformed plant tissue in which they matured, called galls.

Then they go looking for females that haven’t emerged yet. Some males stumble around peacefully while others engage in a little brotherly competition of seeing who can bite who’s head off first in a bid to access more females. When a male finds a female to mate with, he pokes through the gall and inseminates her.

And yes, she’s quite often his sister. But being gentlemen and all, the males then use their sizable jaws to help the females escape their galls, and then chew escape routes through the figs for them. It’s their dying act.

The males are trapped. Forever. They’re born wingless and destined never to leave their birth figs.

Those lucky ladies, on the other hand, crawl through the fig, picking up pollen and squeezing through the escape tunnels into the forest, where they’ll seek out a flowering fig for their own eggs. Now, think back to the last time you ate a fig or fig-filled cookie. Remember how crunchy it was?

Yeah, no, those aren’t the bodies of dead fig wasps. They’re just seeds. That’s because the fig plant produces enzymes that break down and absorb the insects’ exoskeletons.

By the time you or some other animal gets to the fig, the dead insects’ bodies are long gone. And many commercially grown figs don’t actually require pollination, or wasps, at all. The lifecycle of a fig wasp may look like it’s all downhill after being born.

They spend most of their lives inside a fig after all. But their sacrifice is the ecosystem’s gain, and their relationship with fig plants is one of the most perfect examples of mutualism out there. For millions of years, figs and fig wasps have been working together to make the plant a keystone of the forest.

Figs feed more animals than any other known fruit, some 1,200 birds, bats, and other creatures. And they’re available year-round, providing food even when other fruits are out-of-season. While it’s the fig plant that powers the forest, it’s these tiny, stingless insects, that live and die almost entirely inside its fruits, that keep the generators running.

Which might sound pretty strange to us, to live your whole life in one or two small rooms, whose existence you make possible, but that will ultimately end up being your tomb. But, to a fig wasp, our lives would probably sound equally bizarre. The Bizarre Beasts pin club subscription window is open from now through the end of February 13th!

Check out this sweet fig wasp pin! You've got the fig, and the wasp, and at least one of them is very, very sparkly. And, as always, profits from the pin club and all of our merch go to support our community’s efforts to decrease maternal mortality in Sierra Leone. [♪♪OUTRO♪♪]