Recently I was listening to a past episode of Caustic Soda Podcast in which the hosts briefly discussed fig wasps. I was intrigued by this discussion, having previously never heard of fig wasps, and so I did a little research. As it turns out, what I am about to share with you here is just the tip of the iceberg. The relationship between figs and fig wasps is a complex topic, to the extent where you could easily spend a lifetime studying this relationship and there would still be more to discover.
Ficus is a genus of plants in the family Moraceae that consists of trees, shrubs, and vines. They are commonly referred to as figs, and there are between 755 and 850 described species of them (depending on the source). The majority of fig species are found in tropical regions, however many of them are found in temperate regions as well. The domesticated fig (Ficus carica), also known as common fig, is widely cultivated throughout the world for its fruit.
Ficus carica – common fig
photo credit: wikimedia commons
The fruit of figs, also called a fig, is a multiple fruit because it is formed from a cluster of flowers. A fruit is formed by each flower in the cluster, but they all grow together to form what appears to be a single fruit. Now here is where it starts to get bizarre. The flowers of figs are contained inside a structure called a syconium, which is essentially a modified fleshy stem. The syconium looks like an immature fig. Because they are contained inside syconia, the flowers are not visible from the outside, yet they must be pollinated in order to produce seeds and mature fruits.
This is where the fig wasps come in. “Fig wasp” is a term that refers to all species of chalcid wasps that breed exclusively inside of figs. Fig wasps are in the order Hymenoptera (superfamily Chalcidoidea) and represent at least five families of insects. Figs and fig wasps have coevolved over tens of millions of years, meaning that each species of fig could potentially have a specific species of fig wasp with which it has developed a mutualistic relationship. However, pollinator host sharing and host switching occurs frequently.
Fig wasps are tiny, mere millimeters in length, so they are not the same sort of wasps that you’ll find buzzing around you, disrupting your summer picnic. Fig wasps have to be small though, because in order to pollinate fig flowers they must find their way into a fig. Fortunately, there is a small opening at the base of the fig called an ostiole that has been adapted just for them. What follows is a very basic description of the interaction between fig and fig wasp – remember with the incredible diversity of figs and fig wasps, the specifics are sure to be equally diverse.
First a female wasp carrying the pollen of a fig from which she has recently emerged discovers a fig that is ready to be pollinated. She finds the ostiole and begins to enter the fig. She is tiny, but so is the opening, and so her wings and antennae are ripped off in the process. No worries though, she won’t be needing them anymore. Inside the fig there are two types of flowers – ones with long styles and others with short styles. The female wasp begins to lay her eggs inside the flowers, however she is not able to lay eggs inside the flowers with the long styles. Instead, these flowers get pollinated by the wasp. After all her eggs are laid, the female wasp dies. The fig wasp larvae develop inside galls in the ovaries of the fig flowers, and they emerge from the galls once they have matured into adults. The adult males mate with the females and then begin the arduous task of chewing through the wall of the fig in order to let the females out. After completing this task, they die. The females then leave the figs, bringing pollen with them, and search for a fig of their own to enter and lay eggs. And the cycle continues.
But there is so much more to the story. For example, there are non-pollinating fig wasps that breed inside of figs but do not assist in pollination – freeloaders essentially. And how is the cycle different if the species is monoecious (male and female flowers on the same plant) compared to dioecious (male and female flowers on different plants)? It’s too much to cover here, but visit figweb.org for more information. FigWeb is an excellent resource for learning all about the bizarre and fascinating world of the fig and fig wasp relationship. Also check out the PBS documentary, The Queen of Trees.
This is the first of hopefully many posts on plant and insect interactions. Leave a comment and let me know what plant and insect interactions interest you.