Fig Newtons are generally considered to be a somewhat healthy snack. The buttery taste of the cookie mixed with the sweet Fig Newton center combine to form a classic afternoon snack. Have you ever noticed that the center looks a little sketchy, though? It’s not only dark, but there are random crunchy bits, too. Of course, some of those crunchier things are native to the fig fruit, but anything else is a mystery. Turns out there is some pretty gross stuff hiding in the Fig Newton center, so you may want to think twice before you utter that “Yum” the next time you’re munching on your favorite cookie.
The next time you’re joyfully crunching through a Fig Newton center, think about this: some of those crunchy portions could be dead wasp bodies. Now, this is somewhat of a dramatization, as not all figs are filled with dead wasps, but some certainly are. There is actually a type of wasp known as a fig wasp. Pregnant fig wasps seek to pollinate young figs. The catch is that, unlike most flowers, the fig’s flowers are inside of the hard exterior of the fig.
So, how do the fig wasps get inside to pollinate? They enter through a small opening found at the bottom of the fig. Much like an exclusive nightclub, this entryway doesn’t let just anyone inside. The opening knows the specific species of fig wasp that can pollinate its flowers held inside. It’s not the easiest of journeys for wasps that are allowed inside, either. Many insects lose their wings and antennae while trying to squeeze inside.
Once inside, the wasp searches for a home where her babies can live. She’ll be looking for the female flowers in particular. The female wasp will travel all around the inside of the fig, dropping sometimes hundreds of fertilized eggs into female flowers. Eventually, though, she will run out of eggs, so in some of the flowers, she’ll drop fig pollen. The flowers that receive this fig pollen will produce seeds. Unfortunately, it’s not a happy ending for momma wasp. After she’s done dropping eggs, death is not far behind.
Don’t forget about all those fertilized eggs the female wasp dropped! All of those babies are growing inside of a gall, which is a protective casing that the flower creates. Male wasps mature first. After exiting their galls, they find the flowers containing the female wasps, poke inside their galls, and impregnate them. After creating pathways to the outside world for the females, the males also die inside of the fig. After hatching and picking up some pollen for the road, the female wasps leave the fig to start the cycle all over again.
As you’ve read, it sounds like there are a whole lot of dead wasps inside of figs and therefore the Fig Newton center, right? Not necessarily. There are over 750 species of figs from all around the world and we’ve been domesticating them for 11,000 years. The species you’ll find in the grocery store is called the common fig. Some common figs are seedless and don’t require pollination, so that means no wasps. Other common figs are grown on female and male trees. Female wasps can only lay eggs in the male fruit, so that is where the majority of them go. However, some of them wind up in the female fruit where they’ll pollinate and either die or, if they’re lucky, escape. This mistake is how you could be enjoying a little bit of wasp the next time you bite into a Fig Newton center.