Listen to this Story
Narrated by Anjan Prakash
IT’S ALL MUTUAL
On 29th October of this year, if my parents were around, they would have entered their fiftieth year of being together. My mother passed just days before their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, but for the remaining eighteen years of my father’s life, he never did manage well without her, and I often felt that his spirit too had passed along with my mother’s, twenty-five years ago. Such was the relationship they shared, that without one of them, the other couldn’t thrive, and survival became a suffering or a struggle. Even though their relationship was about twenty-five years old, I sense the power of it to this day.
As a tribute to them, and to such partnerships, I wish to share with you an incredible story, that I never miss a chance to hear about from a naturalist, or a researcher, or anyone who wishes to share it, because each time I do so, it evokes such a deep sense of wonder, gives me so many goosebumps as the story progresses, never ceases to overflow me with awe, and despite science enabling us to break this relationship down efficiently, in a way that it helps me narrate the story to you, the part of my body that receives this story, is my heart and not the head. Somewhere the facts quickly fall apart, and the incredible beauty of life and creation engulfs me.
Alright, alright. I sense this has piqued your curiosity enough, that you want me to get to the story soon. While it might appear to be a long one, it is so richly layered, with so many twists and turns, like a well-crafted feature film, that all I invite you to do is, stay with it.
II. The Story of Wonder
About 80 million years ago, yes, about 80 million years ago, two beautiful beings entered into a partnership, the figs and wasps. Over the years, this relationship has continue to evolve giving birth to over 750 species of figs across the earth, with each of them having their own species of fig wasps to pollinate them, in a marvelous co-evolution, a one-of-a-kind partnership.
What is this incredible relationship they share? How does it work?
There are four main characters in the story – the flowers of the Fig tree; a pregnant queen wasp; many young males and young females. As with all stories, the characters do not appear in a linear fashion, but interweave themselves into the story, as and when they are needed.
So I will start the story from the point of view of the flowers of the fig tree, so it becomes easy to understand this complex relationship, and then we can circle back.
Seducing flowers of the Fig tree:
For years people wondered why one couldn’t spot flowering in Fig trees. This is because the Fig trees produce their flowers in enclosed green spherical structures called syconia. Each syconia contains hundreds or even thousands of flowers. When the flowers have reached their prime, the green syconium releases a fragrant scent that entices a pregnant queen wasp who then leaves her home, which is another fig in which she was born and got pregnant. How did she get pregnant? Promise, I shall connect these dots, for now let us continue to stay with the flowers in the green syconium who have now successfully seduced a pregnant queen wasp to come to them. So this queen wasp makes her way to the fragrant syconium, and enters through a really tiny opening, called ostiole.
What is the pregnant queen wasp carrying with her, that the fig flowers are interested in?
When our pregnant queen wasp left her previous fig home where she was born and became pregnant, she also collected pollen from the male flowers of that fig, and carried them on her breast, in a specialized pouch. So our story’s queen wasp is carrying her eggs, as well as the pollen, two important packages when she entered into the seductive fragrant green syconium.
This makes it clear why the flowers wanted her. For pollination. But why does the pregnant queen wasp need the syconium?
So we are in that part of the story, where the pregnant queen wasp enters the tiny opening, the ostiole, and this opening allows only the species of wasp which can pollinate this fig. She even loses her wings while forcing herself through the tiny opening, but that is okay, because she doesn’t need those wings again.
With me so far? She has now entered the green syconium with the 2 packages, one that’s required for her reproduction, and the other for the fig’s reproduction. Let’s see what she does with them.
After she enters the syconium, she is now in the garden of thousands of flowers. This pregnant queen wasp has only about 24 hours to live, and so her top priority is to lay eggs, and she does that in the female flowers, using long tubes called ovipositors. She also injects the flowers with a chemical that transforms them into fat round structures called galls, that provide food and shelter to the young offspring when the eggs hatch. This is why she needs the syconium.
And now for the job that the figs have allowed her in for, which is to deposit the pollen she is carrying, on the remaining female flowers, as she doesn’t need all of them to lay her eggs, which she diligently does.
With both packages successfully delivered, she now lays down to die, surrounded in this garden of flowers, or that’s how I would like to imagine her death. And she dies. While this might appear sad, to me it’s very beautiful because her body is digested by the fig, providing them nourishment. Wow…the circle of life and death in the natural world, and death offering nourishment to new life. Such beauty to it.
Enter the young males and young females:
Now let’s come to the eggs. The eggs hatch into young wasps, young males and young females. They are both led into different lives, as you will see. The males are blind and wingless and they mate with the females. The females are bigger, with big eyes and with wings. After the mating, the pregnant wasps spend time collecting pollen from the flowers on their breasts (some species even have a pouch, remember the package of the pregnant queen wasp I mentioned in the beginning of the story), while the males get busy carving out an exterior for the females to fly out. Once they finish creating these exits, the males die, and then they are taken up by the fruit for nourishment. Now this syconium is pollinated and ripens into mature, fruit-containing seeds, which is the crunchy things we bite into inside of the fig. And no, don’t worry about any wasp bodies, as the fruit has already used them up for their nutrition, breaking them down using a special enzyme called ficin.
Now the pregnant queen wasps, carrying the eggs and the pollen from the male flowers, are ready to leave the fig, when a green syconium entices them with the fragrance, continuing the circle of life. Hopefully each will find a suitable syconium, deposit the eggs, spread the pollen and the fig + the fig wasp will start a life.
And with this while my narration of the story ends, the circle of life story of the 750 figs and fig wasps continues in this incredible partnership, surviving and thriving for over 80 million years.
How can we even begin to comprehend, the tiniest details that went into this co-evolution, and such a complexity. And yet when we bite into a fleshy, juicy, pulpy fresh fig, for her sweetness and robustness, can we even imagine what has gone into orchestrating it?
III. The Science
In science, this beautiful interdependent win-win relationship is named mutualism. In fact, mutualism forms the backbone of Nature’s successful evolutionary strategies to survive and thrive. Given that all resources in nature are finite, and not infinite, when two or more beings come together like how the figs and fig wasps do, it ensures efficient and effective leveraging of existing, available, resources.
We see mutualism across animal kingdoms – termites with protozoa (100 million year old relationship); sea anemone and clownfish (the poster example of mutualism); hummingbirds and flowers (like the fig species, each hummingbird beak has co-evolved to a particular species of flower), and several more.
For a stable mutualism to exist, science tells us that the overall net benefit has to be greater than the cost. By this I mean, here, the figs need the wasps to pollinate, as wind and birds (two dispersers of seeds for pollination) can’t do that job with the flowers hidden inside the syconium. And as far as the wasp is concerned, she needs a safe space to lay eggs, innumerable flowers to do so, and for the little ones to grow and mate, to move on and reproduce. So both their `reproduction’ goals are fulfilled, with a far lesser cost attached to it, using the least amount of resources. Here, the overall net benefit is greater than the cost.
Dr. Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8, who has done extensive research in mutualism shares that this kind of partnerships thrives in nature, as it is based on four criteria:
- The net benefit is higher than the cost of being in the relationship. This is what I explained above with the figs and wasps.
- Both bring different resources or services to the table, which means, both partners carry different offerings that the other needs.
- This resource can be readily given by each party, and there is no additional stress or effort involved. Which means, each partner offers only what they can very easily do so, to the other, because it is inherent to them or is readily available to them.
- And the partners in such relationships, are always ready to respond, adapt and co-evolve based on the changing context and conditions. Which means, if there is any threat or challenge, or shift in the context, the partners are readily willing to change, and evolve to keep the partnership going as long as possible. In other words, there is a commitment to stick through changes.
As you hear this four beautiful time-tested wisdom and intelligence essential to partnerships, what are we really listening to in this? What are these Elders of the natural world showing us, as we too are very much a part of the natural world. Just like these four observations works in the non-human world, and by naturally aligning to it, several species have been in partnerships for millions of generations, when we observe successful partnerships in the human world, we can certainly evaluate it based on these criterion, and without doubt we will begin to see these stand out. We see this naturally unfolding in several Indigenous communities for thousands of years, in several businesses successful for generations, and in observing so, whenever we are keen to enter into a partnership, be it organisational, personal, professional, or of any kind, maybe we can hold this time-tested wisdom in our hearts and evaluate, before moving into a relationship.
IV. It’s All Mutual
My parents certainly held the values of mutualism. They both brought to the table what they were good at and held deep respect for it. They never saw what they had to give up to keep the partnership as sacrifice or compromise, but more as ways of strengthening their relationship. As times changed, both of them adapted and co-evolved, and held their partnership in priority for each of them to thrive. Of course they argued and of course they fought. Of course they had their ups and downs. And then we would catch my dad slipping my mother’s favourite jasmine flowers on her dressing table or in the kitchen, strung together beautifully for her to wear it on her hair, or my mother would make his favourite sweet or dish; then they would slowly communicate to each other through my brother and me; until finally they realized they can’t do without each other, all within a span of few hours or two days max.
I feel a lump in my throat to this day, for the nineteen years of my life I saw them together. Imagine, our fragile environment today, where several such relationships, both in the human world or in the non-human world could be threatened, through wars, droughts, climate change, and other such disasters. How would it be if we could understand the time, the effort, the work it takes to form such bonds, the years and years it takes to co-evolve, into communities, into ecosystems, into relationships that mutually are interdependent?
And what about so many of us dependent on these mutualisms? The Fig trees feed more than a hundred varieties of birds, monkeys, squirrels and many mammals. Imagine the loss of intelligence, wisdom, memory, lost with these Elders.
What if we could do our bit, in any way we can, to keep them going? What could that look like, in our homes, in our families, in our work, in our garden, in our backyard, in our immediate communities, in our immediate surroundings?
This is an offering of love to myself and to all of us.
As we move into winter in India, it will be the second season of fresh figs, what we call as Anjeer (Hindi), Anjura (Kannada), Athi pallu (Telugu), Atti Pazham (Tamil, Malayalam), and Dumoor (Bengali). Boxes and boxes fill up the markets during these two seasons. As we bite into them, we are biting into a garden of flowers and seeds growing together, that flesh which is sweet and juicy and robust, where there has been life and death. From among the 750+ species, about a dozen is edible by humans.
The species we eat, Ficus carica (Common Fig), has been in cultivation by humans for thousands of years.
With this, I invite us all to spend the weekend observing what other partnerships or mutualisms we see around us. How are they interdependent? ? Do you see some of the time-tested wisdom present in them? Are you in some way in a direct or indirect, dependent or interdependent relationship with it?
Please do share what this piece brought up for you, and if you spent time observing such relationships, in the human or more-than-human world, what stood out for you? If I have overlooked or shared any of the science wrong, do bring it to my attention. As I have already told you, I love to listen to this story again and again, the beauty never fails to enthral me.
I have also shared several resources, that you can go through to understand the fig-fig wasp story or enjoy it again, in case you wish to.
May we all build and thrive in such relationships, and if we are already in one or many, may we see and sense the joy in it, in the giving and receiving of it, in all that it nurtures, more consciously.
Thank you for reading, and have a weekend of noticing all that is beautifully mutual around you.