Life and Death of a fig wasp

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Fig: a hollow, round structure that holds the flowers of a fig tree and which is later filled with the sweet and seedy fig fruit.

Pollinate: moving pollen from the male to the female component of a flower as part of the fertilization process in plants. Birds and insects often move pollen from flower to flower when gathering nectar and they are therefore called pollinators... more

Pleistodontes wasp female

Fig trees depend on female fig wasps like this one to pollinate them.

Picking Up Pollen

Fig trees depend on the fig wasp females to deliver the pollen the trees need to reproduce. But how can the trees make sure the wasp carries enough pollen to the next fig? Different fig species use different strategies to solve this problem.

The easy solution is to pack the fig full of large, pollen-producing flowers. In these figs, the wasps have no choice but to brush against the flowers, which cover the wasps with pollen as they pass. It’s messy, but it works.

fig tree

The wasp brings pollen to the fig so the tree won’t drop it.

In other fig species, the female wasps carefully gather pollen into special structures on their bodies before they take off. This system benefits the fig tree because it can make less pollen if the female wasp is purposefully collecting it.  

But why does the tiny female fig wasp take time out of her short life to help the fig? Animals don’t do favors for other species just to be nice.

Scientists don’t know for sure, but two ideas are supported by evidence from experiments. The first idea is that fig trees will drop figs that are not pollinated. The wasp doesn’t want the cozy nursery she has selected to fall to the forest floor before her babies hatch, so she brings pollen to that fig so the tree won’t drop it.

The second idea is that a fig tree puts more sugar and other nutrients in pollinated figs than in unpollinated figs. If this is the case, the female wasp brings pollen to the fig so that the fig tree will provide more food for her babies that are growing inside.

Additional images via Wikimedia Commons. Image of wasps on fig via JMK.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Picking Up Pollen
  • Author(s): Dani Moore
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: October 9, 2012
  • Date accessed: April 13, 2024
  • Link:

APA Style

Dani Moore. (2012, October 09). Picking Up Pollen. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved April 13, 2024 from

American Psychological Association. For more info, see

Chicago Manual of Style

Dani Moore. "Picking Up Pollen". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 09 October, 2012.

MLA 2017 Style

Dani Moore. "Picking Up Pollen". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 09 Oct 2012. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 13 Apr 2024.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see
Apocrypta fig wasps

Tiny fig wasps will fly up to 6 miles to find a ripe fig in which to lay their eggs.

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