Do you have any idea how many ten quintillion is?
If you divided it among all the people of the planet, your personal allocation would be 1.6 billion. If your 1.6 billion were grains of rice, it would come to 55,000 pounds. Picture it: the number of grains of rice in 55,000 pounds for each man, woman, and child of us.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the number of insects on this planet.
This number is necessarily an estimate, an individual census being, up until now, cost-prohibitive. Today, though, and for the next couple of weeks, entomologists have an unprecedented opportunity to do a proper head count, because the world’s entire insect population has assembled all in one place!
That place, I’m sorry to report, is our fig tree.
Those of you following along at home may remember that, a little over a month ago, I had a bad case of fruit angst. Our tree was covered – covered! – with figs. Hard little green figs that refused – refused! – to ripen. Maybe it was all of you dedicated readers sending good wishes and ripen vibes through the ether, because soon afterward, Kevin noticed a fig beginning to soften and turn color. And then another.
At first, it was a trickle. One fig today, another tomorrow. Then a steady stream. Then, an onslaught! Figs, every single day! It was a small miracle.
I can’t say they’re the best figs ever. They don’t quite have the concentrated honeyed flavor of a really good fig. But they’re definitely good enough to enjoy – in quantity. We ate them straight off the tree. We dipped them in the honey our bees made for us this year. We poached them in Sambuca and served them over ice cream. We ate them off the tree again.
At first, they were all but insect-free. If we left one on the tree too long, it would split and attract yellow jackets, but we managed to pick most of them before that stage. But then the insect grapevine must have started buzzing, because the word got out.
My botanical expertise is limited enough for me to have harbored an idea that a fig tree, here on Cape Cod, would have relatively few pest problems because the local pests have never seen one. They’d take one look at it, scratch their little insect heads, and move on to something more familiar, like the raspberry bushes, squash vines, or the delicious wooden portions of our home.
Insects, though, turn out to be fast learners. I guess you don’t get to be ten quintillion strong by turning your back on perfectly good food just because it’s new (if any of you parents out there are looking for new ways to convince your toddlers to expand their gastronomic horizons, you might want to point this out).
As soon as they understood out how tasty and nutritious figs are, they figured out how to keep them all for themselves. Since figs don’t ripen once you pick them, we have to leave them on the tree until they’re just right. So, the insects let them ripen until just before they’re just right, and then move in. There were clearly too many figs for the local population to manage single-mandibly, so they put out a world-wide call for reinforcements.
But it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and our loss is science’s gain. One, two, three …