The delectable little inflorescence known as a fig keeps a morbid secret
tucked inside its syrupy, honey-sweet interior. The little inward
growing flower is a womb and burial ground.
When ripe, the flower releases an enticing aroma, wooing nearby mothers
of the fearsome superfamily Chalcidoiea—better known as wasps. The
pair have a long history of coevolution spanning the course of 75
million years. Within a brief period of two months, the coupled figs and
wasps are entangled in a rigid waltz of life and death.
In search of a nursery, the mother wasps leave their place of birth
alongside their sisters with nothing but the pollen that clings to their
pregnant bodies as memorabilia of a home they will never return to.
Following the enticing saccharine scent, the female wasps travel a
grueling six miles, and there are plenty of predators along the way.
Before they even embark on their quest for reproduction, they must
survive the moths and weevils that wriggle into the confines of their
home to feast. For those who survive the creeping predators, there are
always others that wait for them to ripen. Staphylinid beetles feast on
mature fig wasps before they are able to depart. And if they still
endure, a slew of birds await outside the fig, ready to glean the
surviving fig wasps that emerge.
Having survived the odds, three sisters wriggle forth from the fig, one
older than the next by mere seconds, their exoskeletons glistening as
they are kissed by their first rays of sunlight. Going their separate
ways, they seek a suitable home for their larvae. Once they have claimed
their fig, they traverse the slightly waxy exterior for an entrance,
then force their way through the green and purple flesh.
The narrow tunnel tears their wings from their bodies and their antennas
from atop their heads, stripping them of any future chance of escape,
until, after an enervating half hour, they clamber into the seeded
interior. Unsufficed by the sacrificed iridescent wings, the fig demands
more. The mothers deposit their baggage from what's left of their
homes, fertilizing the fig.
Having found a final resting place, they begin to search the sticky
cavern. The oldest and youngest find themselves lucky, for they’ve
emerged in the middle of an unripe male fig. They then scout the
curvature of the figs seeded walls for the perfect ovules to cradle
their children. The oldest deliberately nestles the eggs in the inner
ovules, closest to the ground in which she will eventually collapse. The
naive youngest sister aimlessly deposits her pupas throughout the outer
and inner laying zones.
Their middle sister is not as fortunate—after her sacrificial journey,
she finds herself inside a female fig. Desperately searching, she paces,
scanning the slimy surface, until there is nothing left to do but accept
that its homogeneous makeup is an incompatible home for her unborn
offspring. Her purpose unfulfilled, she curls up in her barren home. And
in time, starvation and exhaustion claim her.
Unaware of the loss of her sisters, the youngest begins to slow and
tire, satisfied that she has found a safe place for her children,
nestled in their ovules suspended amongst the fig seeds. The new mother
begins to slip into the same famished, excruciating death as her
sisters, relieved that her children are safe in the sweet nursery. But
the infant fig wasps are not as protected as their late mother assumes.
An intruder perches on the outside of the fig. Though they both come
from the same superfamily, the non-pollinating fig wasp has no loyalty
to the mother and children that lie within. It is easy to distinguish
the difference between a non-pollinating and a pollinating female fig
wasp, their physical build evidence of the roles which they fulfill. The
parasitic fig wasp has a menacingly lengthy egg depositor that stretches
twice as long as her body.
Like Apollo and Artemis as they smote Niobe’s offspring with poisoned
arrows from the sky, the non-pollinating wasp begins to claim her
victims. She arches her back, and, with her extended needle-like egg
depositor, pierces through the figs bruise-colored skin, finding its
mark in the ovule of the defenseless larvae.
Unlike the late fig wasp mother spared from witnessing the massacre of
her offspring, Niobe watched helplessly as her children fell beneath the
arrows. Though, both paid the price for the potential of their children.
The non-pollinating pupa hatch before the fig wasps and begin to feed on
the surviving unborn children. After eating the fetal larvae, they move
on to the guts of the fig, destroying the interior of the inflorescence.
After the slaughter, the non-pollinating larvae render the mother fig
wasp and the fig barren and infertile.
Although the non-pollinating fig wasp is parasitic and the antagonist of
this obligated relationship, there are benefits to their instinctual
reproductive actions. With their egg depositor only spanning about four
millimeters, they can only reach the outer ovules of the fig. However,
if these ovules are not occupied by the spawn of pollinating fig wasps,
then there is nowhere for the parasitic wasp to lay her eggs.
A strategic pollinator foundress lays her eggs amongst the inner latex,
out of the parasitic mother’s reach. Not only does this give her
offspring a better chance of survival, but it also benefits the fig. By
leaving the outer lining of the fig untouched, the fig’s seedlings are
given an opportunity to flourish and populate. Her wariness of the
parasitic mother's potential aerial attack motivates the fig wasp
mother to strategically place her eggs, and thus the fig too can thrive.
The only one left out of the mutualistic relationship is the parasitic
Helpless Niobe was unable to offer her children a proper burial, forced
to watch them be eaten away by famished creatures for nine days. The
mother wasp lies amongst the strewn carcasses of her offspring,
incapable of attending to their mangled bodies.
But if the fig wasp mother witnessed the slaughter of her offspring,
would a chronic, emotional itch permanently reside in her, knowing her
sacrifices were for nothing?
The fig wasp is incapable of feeling emotion, spared from the grief that
Niobe endured. But wasps can sense when all is not right. While they are
unable to comprehend emotional or physical agony, they can become
irritated as their body signals that something is amiss. Injuries do not
go unnoticed, whether it be wings being torn from their backs, antennas
from their head, or a parasite consuming them from the inside out.
As her final punishment, Niobe was turned to stone, the crystallization
paling her complexion, the smoothness of her skin remaining, though
stripped of warmth or softness. Upon death, the mother fig wasp’s body
stiffens until the two mothers become rigid and fruitless.
Come time the oldest sister’s orphaned children hatch from their gulls.
The brothers emerge first wingless and blind, knowing they will never
leave the confines of their own cradle. They begin indiscriminately
committing mass siblicide, battling in the limited confines of their
sticky prison. With their powerful jaws, they tear the limbs and chop
the heads off of their brothers.
For the sole objective of survival alone, the fig wasps are one of the
few species that lack the ability to recognize their siblings. The
victors remain blissfully naive that their lovers share a common mother.
Fumbling blindly through the dark, the remaining males seek out the
syconium where their sisters lie. They feel out their unhatched sisters
who remain hidden within the galls in which they were born. Making an
incision in the gall allows for insemination and later the escape of the
pregnant fig wasp.
Upon completion, the males begin tunneling to the surface of the fig,
stumbling over the carcasses of their brothers, only to die further
along the way, until, at last, sunlight shows inside the fig.
The flower absorbs the remains of their mother and brothers. And flying
past the bodies of their siblings and lovers, the mothers set out in
search of a new fig.