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Humans (Homo sapiens) as fig eaters

Do we eat fig wasps when we eat figs?

(Life; Embryophyta (plants); Angiospermae (flowering plants); Eudicotyledons; Order: Rosales; Family: Moraceae; Genus: Ficus)

Fig frugivores

A common concern among humans is whether we eat fig wasps when we consume figs. The short answer is yes for dried figs and usually no for fresh figs. The fig species that is eaten is the domesticated fig Ficus carica, which has been in cultivation for thousands of years. It occurs naturally in the Mediterranean region, but is also cultivated in this area as well as in various other parts of the world where there is a suitable climate, such as California and South Africa.

Commercial cultivation of fresh figs for the consumer market usually centres on parthenocarpic cultivars, i.e. varieties that have been artificially selected for. These varieties do not need pollination to produce fruit. Fig trees will normally abort their fig crop if the figs are not pollinated as the figs are then an energy cost with no benefit. Figs that are grown for dry fig production are usually cultivars that need pollination (caprification).

Female fig wasp pollinators enter the fig through the ostiole (opening at the apex of the fig) to pollinate the flowers and to lay their eggs down the style into the ovary of the flower. See lifecycle. However, Ficus carica is a functionally dioecious species, which means that the male and female reproductive functions of the species are separated between individual trees, with some trees being female and others male. Female trees produce seeds in the  figs and no wasps, whereas male trees produce a few seeds but mostly wasps. The wasps then load up pollen before dispersing from the fig they have bred in and hence perform the male function for the species. How does this happen?

If figs from female trees of varieties that do require pollination are used in fig production the only possibility of eating wasps is if the foundress females that entered the fig to pollinate the flowers did not manage to exit the fig again. This does happen, but often the female wasps will escape from the fig they entered. The wasps do not breed in the fig and only seeds are produced performing the female function for the species.

Wild figs are also very nutritious and eaten by many indigenous people. In these cases the fig wasps that have not departed from the fig they bred in are consumed along with the fig. Most of the fig wasps will have left the fig before it ripens and becomes attractive to frugivores, but many species have wingless males which die and remain within the fig cavity. There are also nematode worms that are specific to fig wasps and a host of other fungal organisms residing within the fig cavity of wild figs, but these don't appear to have any negative effect on human health.

Links

Purdue University's NewCrop site (For information on varieties, cultivation and uses).

 

The Calimyrna fig and its pollinator wasp.

References

Gaaliche, B. Trad, M. Mars, M. 2011. Effect of pollination intensity, frequency and pollen source on fig (Ficus carica L.) productivity and fruit quality. Scientia Horticulturae 130 (4): 737-742.

Stover, E., Aradhya, M., Ferguson L. & Crisosto, C.H. 2007. The fig: Overview of an ancient fruit. HortScience 42:10831087.

Credits

Photographs Simon van Noort (Iziko Museums).

Web authors Simon van Noort (Iziko South African Museum)

and Jean-Yves Rasplus (INRA, France)

Copyright 2004-2013 Iziko Museums of South Africa

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