The Wasp and the Fig
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 mother.
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.
reviewed by Ashley Wagner
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