The parasitic fig wasp is as mean as it sounds. However, it’s also equipped with some fascinating tools. Its stinger is unique in that it is actually a zinc-fortified ovipositor that acts just like a drill, which deposits eggs. It’s thinner than a human hair, yet it can pierce through tough materials, specifically unripe figs, where it injects its eggs.
The parasitic fig wasp’s drill ovipositor is extremely long for its body, being much longer than the stingers usually found on wasps. Until recently, biologists were stumped as to how the parasitic fig wasp’s drill ovipositor is able to survive multiple raw fig drilling events. While the drill was known to be strong, evidence indicated that it shouldn’t be able to survive more than one attempt. However, a mechanical engineer named Namrata Gundiah became fascinated by the creatures and decided to study them closely. She observed that the drill ovipositor is designed to bend and flex when drilling into a raw fig, stopping it from fracturing when it buckles.
You may imagine that the parasitic fig wasp’s larvae feed on the fig that they’re deposited in, but you’d be wrong. It actually feeds on another wasp’s eggs/larvae, which are already in there. These were deposited by the pollinator wasp.
Both pollinator wasps and fig trees rely on each other for mating and survival. A fig tree’s flowers are encased inside of the figs, so it can’t use wind to spread pollen around, so the tree enlists the help of a pollinator wasp. A female pollinator wasp will land on an unripe fig and make her way through a tiny passageway leading to its core. Once inside, she lays her eggs and spreads pollen. This is an incredibly difficult process for the female pollinator wasp. It loses its wings and most of its antennas on this journey, and after laying its eggs, it dies.
The eggs hatch into larvae which feed on the fig before turning into adults and mating with each other. Then the males chew through the fig and die, allowing the females to escape and carry pollen to new figs.
As the male pollinator wasps never leave the fig, except to die, they are unusual in wasps in that they have evolved to not have wings. There’s nowhere to fly to inside a fig, after all. The females look much more like normal wasps.
Female parasitic fig wasps use their drills to deposit their eggs, which feed on the pollinator wasp’s eggs/young. She is even able to smell her way to the developing wasps and deposits an egg on each one. Harsh.
In case you were wondering if you’re eating dead wasps when enjoying figs, you aren’t. The carcasses of the dead wasps get completely absorbed by an enzyme that the fig produces called ficain before the fig fruit becomes ripe.
This fig and wasp co-dependent life cycle has been going on for millenia. Evidence indicates that this bizarre life cycle began 70-90 million years ago, as a one off event, that the first fig wasps’ children replicated, with the process going on again and again. It is also thought that this fig/wasp co-dependability is what has led to the wide diversity of figs within nature.