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What a fig is. (theatlantic.com)
239 points by kfarzaneh on Sept 12, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

If you are squeamish and like figs, this may comfort you.

According to a comment in the original post, majority of commercial ones do not contain insects:

"Only some kinds of figs (so called 'Smyrna' types) are pollenated by wasps. The vast majority of figs eaten come from varieties that produce fruit parthenocarpically. It is highly unlikely that the fig you ate at the supermarket was of a variety pollenated by wasps: most north american commercial figs are not."


I chose to believe this explanation :)

More on parthenocarpy, a word I did not know existed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenocarpy

Essentially a mutation that gets trees to produce useless fruits that don't have actually developed seeds and don't need pollination. While that sort of mutation would normally be selected against, since the trees can't reproduce via seeds and are expending energy on producing fruit for no reason, it's deliberately selected for by farmers who artificially reproduce the trees via planting cuttings, or grafting them onto rootstock.

(Though I guess really the "naturally" versus "artificially" distinction is a bit, erm, artificial, if you just think of humans as another species, since lots of natural selection is influenced by relationships between species, like the wasp-fig relationship in this article. So trees evolving to please humans isn't really different in kind from trees evolving to work well with wasps.)

> (...) the "naturally" versus "artificially" distinction is a bit, erm, artificial, if you just think of humans as another species (...)

"Aritificial" means "man-made", and is a (man-made/artificial) word invented to describe things that are done by humans, not other animals. By definition, everything a farmer makes is artificial.

Well, yes, I meant more the philosophical assumption that there's a difference between "natural" and shall we say "unnatural" things, rather than viewing humans as just another part of nature. If "artificial" is just a shorthand for "the part of nature strongly influenced by Homo sapiens", then that's fine with me.

One of the more interesting consequences of this line of thought (of course depending on definitions of the words at hand) is that you can make a reasonable statement that man is utterly incapable of doing anything unnatural - since by definition, since man is a part of nature, everything man does is also what nature does.

Personally, I find this set of words (artificial, unnatural, etc) to have way, way too much baggage, so I prefer to just define them as nonsensical (i.e. it's impossible to do anything unnatural) rather than assume that they are useful tools for communication like other words (since most people will have varying definitions of what is unnatural, which aren't rationally guessable).

Holding this line of thought also allows to instantly come across as an annoying smart-arse in parties (and online too, I suppose).

Most of the commercial figs grown in California are wasp pollinated. If a fig is crunchy, it contains seeds, and if it contains seeds, the flowers inside it were likely pollinated by at least one wasp.

Here is a great article with more details :)


Luckily the wasps are not the wasps most people think of, from the article: "The tiny wasps are only two millimeters long."

They are correct. Most of the figs, at least the fresh ones you would buy in the US, are parthenocarpic. Dried figs, or what might be in a fig newton, well... you're on your own on that one.

There is an amazing amount of wildlife in a wasp pollinated fig. If you break one open, all sorts of interesting stuff crawls out, not just immature wasps, but also a lot of organisms that prey on the wasps.

Dried figs, or what might be in a fig newton, well... you're on your own on that one.

err, that's what I was most interested in... I've eaten an entire pack of fig newtons in one sitting.

The fig filling in fig newtons is crunch because it contains seeds. ;)

I always used to wonder why they would make the filling contain the hard crunchy part, which I really didn't like.

"I've eaten an entire biological micro-ecosystem in one sitting."


Glad I don't like fig newtons. :)

You are a biological micro-ecosystem. So eating one shouldn't really squick you out.

"I've eaten an entire biological micro-ecosystem in one sitting."

Tastes like ... victory.

Just don't ever look at the germs in your mouth or the rest of your digestive system.

Cookies are a weakness of mine. It will be interesting to see if this puts me off of fig newtons... probably not. :)

Ripe figs are delicious, and knowing that they've also, potentially killed a wasp - man's greatest enemy - only makes their nectar sweeter to my tongue.

The knowledge of enclosed vespine corpses just adds one more item to my growing list of things I hate about fig trees, of which I have two. Two fig trees are at least one and probably two fig trees too many. Too much pruning is required because spring growth is extensive. Too much fall raking is required because there's a ton of foliage too. But the real pain in the ass is harvesting. Figs really have to ripen on the tree, but as soon as they're ripe they're liable to fall. Without daily vigilance, a big crop will result in lots of smashed, rotting fruit on the ground, which sticks with insane determination to the soles of unwary shoes. Naturally in the season of maturation the fig tree is also the haunt of 17.6 billion insects of every variety, so while it provides ample shade from the sun, it's better to just suck it up and burn. Also less than the most satisfying experience of one's life is picking figs from the tree with a view to either engaging in the messy and overrated process of eating them, the laborious and not especially rewarding process of drying them, or merely in the pathetically futile effort to protect the ground beneath. Mucking about in the middle of that foliage is massively irritating to any exposed skin because of the sticky residue that seems to find its disgusting way onto every leaf and branch. The severity of this irritation is such that extraordinary caution is recommended before following the presumably divinely-inspired path towards modesty followed by Adam and Eve.

You my friend, have some serious fig issues and have created the most compelling case I have ever heard for NOT planting a fig tree, ever.

On our fig tree, the figs ripen without falling off. But, it's a race to get to them before the local fauna: they seem to be a real delicacy for birds and wasps. Later in the season, half-eaten figs (ripe, brown and wrinkled) fill the topmost branches, attended by crowds of wasps.

When I pick them, I go in a T-shirt and shorts. Yes, the leaves are sticky - but not irritating in the slightest. It's usually a warm humid day anyway, so a cold shower is very refreshing.

And as for the figs: infinitely more delicious than anything from grocery stores. Messy to eat? Less messy than an apple.

I think we must be referring to different types of trees...

Time to quibble!

1.) Wasps as man's greatest enemy? Really?

If we were being poetic, here, then I'd say that Man's greatest enemy is Man themselves, but this is HN, so I won't. For a runner up, I would at least choose an animal that can actually kill a healthy human, rather than one that and annoy a healthy human and kill a subset with allergic reactions of venom.

2.) There are a lot of species of wasp. According to wikipedia, 160,000. Not all of them will sting, or even can sting humans. Fig wasps count among them. There are quite a few wasps that are beneficial, in that they predate upon insects that are slightly more annoying than the wasps themselves.

3.) Nectar is produced (generally) by flowers, to attract pollinators. By design, it's easily accessible by insects, and not protected by the rind of a fruit. The juice of a fruit is just juice, not nectar.

If we were being poetic, here, then I'd say that Man's greatest enemy is Man themselves, but this is HN, so I won't. For a runner up, I would at least choose an animal that can actually kill a healthy human, rather than one that and annoy a healthy human and kill a subset with allergic reactions of venom.

How about one that kills one to three million humans, mostly very young children, every year? The mosquito is man's greatest animal enemy. Actually, I think it's safe to say that mosquito is a worse enemy to man than man himself, since mosquito-borne malaria has been responsible for many more deaths than all the wars in history.

Big predators, on the other hand, like bears or lions, which are physically capable of killing a human single-handedly, are responsible for so few human deaths as to be lost in statistical noise.

Surely it is the malaria parasite that is the killer, rather than the mosquito?

The mosquito is the vector of transmission, so the couple mosquito-parasite makes it an enemy as a whole.

And the guy sitting in jail isn't the killer, but his gun? No, strike that. It's not the gun, but the bullet.

One could view it as an accidental death. The mosquito didn't intend to transmit malaria, or to kill the child, it was just a side effect of what it does every day. Though, mosquitoes being parasitic by nature, they aren't very respectful of human right to property (they steal people's blood for a living, after all). Maybe more like an alcoholic who drives drunk.

Anyway, I like your analogy as an answer to the mosquito vs. malaria blame game, but it may be impossible to directly compare a mosquito-inflicted death to one caused by a human in any fashion.

In short, blame is irrelevant...human rights trump mosquito (or malaria) rights, IMNSHO, so if we could somehow destroy mosquitoes (and/or malaria) entirely in the sub-Saharan region, that'd be entirely alright with me, to hell with the consequences (some argue it would impact other wildlife, as mosquitoes are a food source for birds, as well as a pollinator for some plants, and those birds and plants are a food source for bigger animals, etc.).

Mosquitoes are not wasps, and I'm pretty sure fig wasps don't carry malaria.

Meta-quibble: A fig is a modified inflorescence (more precisely, a synconium), and can contain many hundred nectar producing flowers.

Nectar is also a term used for sweetened and watered down (until it is drinkable) fruit puree. I haven't seen any recently, but you used to be able to buy apricot nectar at any grocery store, and gourmet food shops often had pear and peach nectars as well (and rarely oddballs like plum or blackberry).


This is only a copy of http://scienceblogs.com/oscillator/2010/09/edible_symbiosis....

It is better to link to the original article. It has some photos and videos of the figs.

Both the Wikipedia article [1] and the other scienceblogs post [2] linked from that post are pretty interesting, too.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Fig#Pollination.2C_fruit...

[2]: http://scienceblogs.com/observations/2010/01/even-mutualists...

Take a fig.

Okay, take about 8 of them.

And take 8 strips of thick-cut, maple-smoked, peppered organic bacon, the best you can find.

Wrap the fig in the bacon, secure with a toothpick, and place on a pan.

Roast at 425F for about 25 minutes, checking after about 15 minutes.

I assure you, you will not be disappointed.

Does this fig hold a wasp? That's an enigma, wrapped in mystery, wrapped in bacon.

if only tiny pigs pollinated figs

You forgot to first make a small lengthwise cut in the fig, and fill it with blue cheese. Then wrap it with bacon, secure with a toothpick, and put it on the bbq.

Don't forget to also drizzle with honey and cracked black pepper.

this is why i love hacker news.

For the recipes, the sarcasm, or the intellectual banter?


The concluding chapter of Dawkins's _Climbing Mount Improbable_ is all about this, and it needed a whole chapter because it's mind-blowingly intricate.


I have to say from experience...

If you move into a house (purchase/rent/otherwise) with a fig tree and plan to relandscape. Be very careful. Fig tree roots run very shallow, and even older trees are susceptible to damage to the roots.

I found out the hard way - rototilling an overgrown back yard due to too much grass, weeds, bulbs, etc. The 'till chomped through two or three large surface roots (< 8" deep which were more than 4 feet from the tree). The result - one dead 20+ y/o fig tree.

Be careful when gardening/redoing a yard.

Sounds like you and pigbucket up there should have a chat.

(Re: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1685161 if you hadn't seen.)

I missed that, that is pretty awesome. I'm not a fan of figs, but the significant other and friends are. For me, losing an old tree due to not knowing it's proper care was the bit of a downer.

I don't quite feel pigbucket's hate. :)

Figs prefer a bit of constraint in their roots, so they should be planted out in a buried pot.

At first glace it seemed like this species of wasp was inbreeding. But after reading a Wiki article [1], it seems like different female wasps can lay eggs in a single fig.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fig_wasp#Life_cycle

They do inbreed very heavily--not exclusively, but more than any other animal of which I'm aware. The larva will mate with siblings, if that's who they happen to find.

Just a note: there is usually only one wasp in the edible fig, and it has been broken down by the plant.

We got figs in at a restaurant I cook at this past week. We have fig ravioli on our seared scallop app (with frisse, radiccio, butternut puree, and reduced port), a fresh fig salad with fig vin (and mesclun, candied pinenuts, fried onions, and goat cheese mousse), and bruleed figs on our whipped chocolate dessert (with mint sorbet). Fun product, and, for us anyway, insect free.

Fascinating. Here is a video showing the wasps collecting the pollen inside a male fig flower (as described in the first paragraph): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZCYoEdavDk

Why this sudden interest in me? :)

Nature at the macroscopic scale may be red in tooth and claw, but at smaller scales it gets positively Lovecraftian. (See also: the cockroach brain parasite http://scienceblogs.com/loom/2006/02/02/the_wisdom_of_parasi... )

The man came in the restaurant, pointed to a meal looking like meat and asked: "What it that?" The attentand replied: "that's our special: cow tongue!" And the man said: "Argh, I won't eat something that comes from the mouth of that animal... Just give me an egg, please."

So, in other words, a fig is a righteous bastard. And, in its choice of symbiont (a wasp, of all things), reveals a sense of irony that's as delicious as the fruit itself. It's the WINfruit!

What? Figs are not vegan? How about kosher?

Haha, yeah, as a vegan, this is interesting!

I don't think this makes figs unvegan though. At least, eating figs is just as vegan as building a house out of limestone.

Biology is strange. If I had read this in a sci-fi book, I would think the author went overboard.

What little love I had for figs has now been squelched. Thank you.

I knew there had to be an explanation why I never liked figs.

I'll just be putting these figs back on the shelf now.

Hence why I stopped eating figs.

Do you eat hot dogs? I don't. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhwXPsTaRgc

skip the video and forget ramen profitability. the real standard is the Costco hot dog. $1.50 for an excellent treat with unlimited soda refills.

I don't like hot dogs and sausages for the taste. But the video makes the production look more palatable than what I had imagined.

I don't eat too many grocery story hot dogs (they taste too much like the salt and phone books they're made of) but I do love the sausages at the German deli. So delicious. And I feel like I'm doing something good eating the not-so-visually-appealing parts that otherwise might go to waste. There's a lot more to a pig than tenderloin.

Nope. I'll eat them on the very rare occasion when I'm really hungry and there's nothing else available, but nope.

the more you know about where your food comes from, the better. maybe you wouldn't eat that burger if you knew the pesticides, hormones and antibiotics that go into it. maybe you wouldn't eat that shellfish which may be full of birth control hormones. and maybe you wouldn't eat that genetically modified corn. in the bigger picture, eating a dead wasp seems like the healthy choice.

I can sympathize with your first example. But what's so bad about modifying genes?

i am not a geneticist, but i look at any change without lots of historical data and studies as alpha or beta quality and i assume a possibility for bugs.

The older alternative to direct genetic modifications is using radiation to cause random changes in the genome.

Systems biology looks like progress.

This is why I'm buying figs asap!

Seriously? :)

My, they sure are delicious fruits.

I never liked them much anyway, and I didn't particularly relish the idea of eating dead wasps.

(bugs? well, ok. Wasps? No thanks)

Although now that I read the wasps are digested by the fig, they seem more palatable again.

thank you, didn't want to know that.

Why not? Did that not just humble you a bit with the sheer grace and awe yielded by hundreds of years of evolution? I don't know about you, but my world just got slightly more awesome knowing about this.

>Did that not just humble you a bit with the sheer grace and awe yielded by hundreds of years of evolution?

It is awe inspiring design isn't it.

It’s awfully convoluted design. Like a Rube Goldberg machine.


no i think it took way longer than that. maybe even tens!

How about millions of years?

So, is Monsanto plotting to kill off the fig wasps and replace them with something they can profit from yet?

Sorry, I don't read Andrew Sullivan. Supported invasion of Iraq, no mea culpa, wrong about pretty much everything else too.

Nice. Support for unrepentant warmongers remains strong in geekdom.


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