“Stuck on You” : A Love Story Despite Deforestation

Life has always been rough for the African wasp Certosolen arabicus. Their lifespan of two days doesn’t provide them with much time to get to know the world. But, if there’s one thing that makes these 48 hours worth living, it’s their intimate relationship with the fig tree Ficus sycomorus. A beautiful tale of romance…

These two species are inseparable. There might be ‘plenty of trees in the forest’, but the wasp only eats the fig’s nectar, while in return, the wasp is the only thing capable of pollinating the fig tree. For many long years, this unlikely partnership has carried on unfettered. But deforestation in the region means less fig trees and more sparsely distributed. Let’s hope this romance has a happy ending…

Researchers tested to see if the love-affair between the wasp and fig could stand the test of a long-distance relationship.

In an environment pumping with pollinator promiscuity, the symbiotic relationship of the wasp and fig compel a loyalty uncommon in the natural world. The fig tree, which serves as a nest for the wasp’s eggs, only opens its pollen-rich male flowers once the wasps are born. The same tree will wait two weeks to open its female flowers, to avoid being self-pollinated, with consideration that the wasps only live a couple of days.

So, the young wasps sip from the male flower’s small reserve of nectar, picking up pollen on the way, and then go out to find their next meal at another fig tree’s more nectarous female flower. They eat, pollinate, mate, lay eggs, and finally, die. Just like that.

Sadly though, due to deforestation, researchers worry that the fig trees will soon become too few, too isolated for the little wasps to get to them in their brief lives, effectively breaking the reproduction capability of the wasp and fig.

In an attempt to find out just how far the wasps were able to travel from a male flowering tree to a female flowering tree, scientists collected seeds from 79 different fig trees across Namibia and performed a DNA test on each.

Here’s what they found: While some trees may be closer to one another, the wasps still preferred to travel long distances to find a female fig flower. The paternity tests found that, on average, the wasps traveled a whopping 88.6 miles to pollinate, that’s in one evening! Actually scientists found at least one tree was pollinated with the DNA of another that was 150 miles away.

The results of this research are reassuring to scientists who fear that fig trees isolated by great distances due to deforestation will gradually be lost. So these two lovers will bestaying together, we’re happy to report.

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