by Piter Kehoma Boll
During the past three weeks, I presented a fig tree, the Chinese Banyan, a thrips that parasitizes it, the Cuban Laurel Thrips, and a mite that parasitizes the thrips, the Cuban-Laurel-Thrips Mite. However, I haven’t wrote yet about one of the most interesting creatures that interacts with a fig tree: its pollinator.
In the case of the Chinese Banyan, its pollinator is the fig wasp Eupristina verticillata, which I named the Chinese Banyan Wasp. As all fig wasps, this species is very small and completely adapted to live with figs. They cannot survive without the exact fig species with which they interact and the fig species cannot reproduce without that exact wasp. How does this works?
Let’s start our story with an adult female Chinese banyan wasp. The females are black and very small, measuring around 1 to 1.2 mm in length only. This female is flying around looking for a young fig which will serve as her nest and her grave.
A fig, in case you don’t know, is not a real fruit in the botanical sense. It is actually a special kind of inflorescence called a syconium that is basically a flower-filled sack. The inner walls of a fig have many tiny male and female flowers and the only way to get to them is through a tiny hole at the fig’s appex. And this hole is only open during the initial stages of the fig’s development.
When the female Chinese Banyan fig wasps is flying around, she is looking for a fig that is at this exactly stage of development. Once she finds one, she crawls inside the fig through that tiny hole. She usually loses her wings while doing that because the passage is too narrow. She evens needs to use her especially adapted mandible to help her go through. Once inside the fig, she looks for the female flowers, which are located at the base of the fig, away from the entrance. The male flowers, located right at the entrance, are not mature yet. However, the female wasps arrived with pollen that she gathered elsewhere (you will learn about that soon). When she reaches the female flowers, she introduces her ovopositor (the long structure at the end of her abdomen that is used to lay eggs) inside the female flower and lays one egg inside the flower’s ovary. Her ovopositor needs to have the exact size to reach the ovary to lay the egg. If it is too short, she is unable to complete her task. And while she is moving from flower to flower to lay eggs, she ends up pollinating them. After she has finished, she dies still inside the fig.
The ovaries that received an egg start to grow into a gall (a “plant tumor”) by influence of the insect and serve as food and shelter for the larvae that hatch from the eggs. A larva grows, pupates and turns into an adult inside a single gall. When the wasps have finally reached their adult stage, they leave the gall in which they were born. This happens when the fig reached its mature stage.
Males are the first ones to emerge. They are even smaller than the females and have a yellow to light-brown color. They gnaw their way through the gall and, once outside it (but still inside the fig) they start to look desperately for female wasps to inseminate. They do that by tearing other galls apart and, when a female is found trapped inside, they inseminate her. After that, the males dig a hole through the fig to the outside and die soon after, never experienced the external world.
Female wasps then leave their galls and move towards the hole opened by the male. While doing that, they move over the now mature male flowers and become covered in polen. After leaving the fig, they search for another fig that is in its early stage of development, restarting the cycle.
When a female leaves a mature fruit, she needs to find an immature one soon after that because she will die in a couple of days. In other words, the only way for this to work is if there are figs in the right stage all year around, and that is what happens. Differently from most plant species, which produce flowers in a specific time of the year, fig trees are always flowering. Well, not exactly. One individual fig tree produces figs only in a specific period of the year. All the figs of that tree ripen at the same time, i.e., a fig tree has an intra-individual synchrony of flower maturation. However, other trees of the same species have different moments to produce flowers, i.e., there is an inter-individual asynchrony of flower maturation. This assures that a wasp will always find a fig at the suitable maturation stage when there are enough fig trees around and also assures that a fig tree will not be fertilized by its own pollen.
As I mentioned when I presented the Chinese Banyan, this tree can only produce viable figs when the wasp is present, so that populations introduced outside of their native range will only reproduce if the waps is introduced as well. However, the wasp will be unable to survive if there are not enough fig trees to provide it with figs all year round. It is a delicate relationship between a tiny, fragile and short-lived insect and a huge, resistant and long-lived tree. And they need each other to survive.
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