Urban legends about bugs in bananas and bees in figs got we wondering how many of these "urban legends" are factless or, -are they partially based upon truth?
You Ate a Bug and Didn’t Even Notice it
On the transit bus the other day I overheard some teenage girls excitedly prattling-on about urban legends of insects that end up in your food. I’ve heard most of these legends myself as a teenager.
While there is a certain truth to some of that (The USDA allows a certain number of insect parts per bag of pasta noodles, etc.) for the mostpart, it is just that. An urban legend. At least, within the context of that particular conversation was going.
However, there ARE bugs in even the best consumer fod products you buy. Grade “U.S. #1″ ketchup, the highest grade that there is, has as many as 30 fruitfly eggs per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) according to this report cited from the Dept. of Entomology NCSU.
Swallowed Spiders and other Myths
I’ve heard that tale before, about those alleged spiders that humans swallow every night. The legend goes that they run in and out of your open mouth while you sleep, attracted by the carbon dioxide you exhale and the moisture in your mouth. That you swallow “three spiders per night” being the oft-cited number. And let’s not forget the urban legend of the banana spider ‘little black dot’ eggs in the core of over-ripe bananas.
A ‘Bugs in Food’ Urban Myth that is True
Well one alleged urban legend about insects in food is actually corect; wasps in figs.
Wasps in Fig Fruits: Mutualism in Nature
As a normal part of the life-cycle of both figs and fig wasps. Yes, this urban legend is true.
Through a process called Mutualism, these specialized wasps have an essential role to play and without them there would be no figs. There are two kinds of figs, a male ‘caprifig’ and the female ‘edible fig.’ The female fig wasp (carrying pollen on her body) will access the male fig (caprifig) while it is still in the pre-fruit stage (basically, a bundle that is as much flower still and it is pre-fruit) and bore a hole to its middle. Here, she will deposit her eggs. The pollen on her body fertilizes the fruit and begins its development.
The eggs the female fig wasp has laid will eventually hatch and grow. burrowing around inside of the fruit. The wingless male wasps will remain within the fig all of their lives. The female wasps of the brood however will burrow an exit out of the fig and fly away, taking with them pollen from the ripening fig to begin the process over again.
Because these fig wasps are both beneficial when harmoniously balanced to the fruit farmers goals, and potentially destructive when competition for available fruits is at a premium, the fig farmer must strike a balance between these mutualistic flora and fauna. Should the female fig waspsenter the female fig (edible) she become stuck, and dies. It would not be uncommon that scores of egg-laying females would be forced to attempt the suicidal act of attempting to access a limited number of available nesting sites, and overload the fruit’s ability to cope.
The fig tree ultimately end up having male figs (caprifigs) loaded with wasp eggs and female figs (edible figs) that are full of seeds. Too many wasps involved and the fruit ends up producing fruit comprised of mostly seeds. This is good for the fig tree as a species (more seeds = more fig trees) but for the fig farmer that wants to produce marketable (’meaty,’ if you’ll pardon the pun) fruits, fruits that bear all seeds is not what they want for a commercial harvest. To say that the balance between the two is complicated is a gross understatement at best.
So, Are There Dead Wasps in Figs or Fig Products?
Well, not exactly. Wasps are most definitely involved during the growth cycle, but not so factually present at the fruit stage. Any female fig wasp that dies within the edible fig is ‘digested’ by an enzyme called ficin. This fully digests the wasps and essentially helps to feed the growing fig fruit. Fig fruits are somewhat akin to the carnivorous plants (Venus Flytrap, Pitcher Plant, etc.) in that they ‘eat insects‘ to get some proteins and minerals they require.
Image via Wikipedia
But there are no insects in the fig at the consumer level. When you eat a raw fig or chew a fig bar, those crunchy things you detect (clearly the source of the urban legend) are not bug bodies.
They are just fig seeds