Are there wasps in figs? I've heard this for years and always just assumed it to be true. I've never laid eyes on one, and have just sort of quietly hoped that the crunch inside the figs I've eaten were seeds and not wasps. The figs are always delicious, so I don't really care too much.
But ARE there wasps in figs? I decided to find out. Bon Appetit says that the answer is "both yes and no." And How Stuff Works gives an answer akin to something like "sort of, but not really, and mostly no, but sometimes yes." Hmmm.
While not all figs require wasps for pollination, some, including the Calimyrna, do. Female fig wasps play in important role for that pollination. They crawl into the fig, which is actually an inverted flower, and lay their eggs. However, the wasp gets stuck in the fig after she's crawled in, and can't crawl back out, so she and her wingless male offspring die inside the fig (the female offspring are able to escape, to repeat the process with other fig flowers).
But don't worry, the wasps aren't just hanging out in your figs, waiting to be eaten. Bon Appetit explains that the wasps are dissolved by an enzyme well before a customer buys and eats a fig:
"There's no fig wasp in there by the time people are eating the fruit," says [Louise] Ferguson [extension specialist at UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences]. The female fig produces an enzyme that completely digests the exoskeleton before hungry humans can take a bite. To be clear: "The crunchy bits are seeds, not wasp parts," she adds.
And How Stuff Works explains that figs do have "at least one dead female wasp inside," but reiterates that the wasp is no longer recognizable because the wasp has been broken down by an enzyme. Furthermore, fig farmers try hard to limit the number of wasps entering the figs to begin with:
When a female wasp dies inside an edible fig, an enzyme in the fig called ficin breaks down her carcass into protein. The fig basically digests the dead insect, making it a part of the resulting ripened fruit. The crunchy bits in figs are seeds, not anatomical parts of a wasp.
Fig farmers want to keep the number of wasps entering edible figs to an acceptable minimum. While the insect's cooperation is mandatory for the fig to ripen, too many wasps entering will result in over-pollination. Then this fig might be filled with so many seeds that the fruit-like syconium bursts open. While this is good for the plant, it hurts the finished harvest for farmers. To prevent this, farmers separate male and female trees over great distances. Farmers also supply a controlled number of new wasps, often delivered in paper sacks, to dictate exactly how many females have access to a given plant. This means fewer wasps inside when the time comes to harvest.
Finally, How Stuff Works reminds us that even if bugs like wasps sneak into our food (and they do!), we really shouldn't be so persnickety about it:
It's also important not to get too bent out of shape over the possibility of accidently eating the occasional insect. Even with the use of modern pest control, insects partially contaminate most agricultural products upon harvest and on the way to market. From canned corn to curry paste, from premium coffee to peanut butter, most foods contain insects. For example, when tomato ketchup qualifies for the highest USDA grade standard possible, it's required to contain no more than 30 fruit fly eggs per every 100 grams (3.5 ounces).
So, go enjoy your figs—there probably aren't any bugs in them!
Read more about the fascinating life cycle of fig wasps here and here, or watch a short video here.