Flowers rely on pollinators like bees, beetles, birds, moths, butterflies, bats, and other creatures to spread pollen from one flower to the next in order to create seeds. Flowers have adapted their color, shape, or aroma to attract the type of pollinator that would best suit them – for example, hummingbirds like red tube flowers. Butterflies like bright, flat flowers – simple enough. However, when the orchid started adapting, it learned that tricking pollinators was the best and most efficient way to spread their pollen!
Similarly to other flowers, the shape and color of orchid will attract certain types of pollinators, however, the orchids only mimic those other flowers. Orchids that are hummingbird pollinated often have bright red or pink tubes with tiny flecks of yellow (mimicking the pollen-bearing anthers of other flowers), however, orchids don’t offer nectar in return like those other flowers do. Many that are pollinated by butterfly and other bees will have markings that act as beacons, pointing clearly the direction the pollinator needs to go.
Orchids, like other flowers, know how to use their smell. Ones that are pollinated by nocturnal insects need to attract their pollinators not by sight, but by smell! These are a dingy white or green color but smell very fragrant and sweet. Orchids that are fly or flesh-beetle pollinated smell like rotting flesh and are often a brownish-red color to look like meat. Some other orchids will use sweet-smelling pheromones of female insects to lure in males. The males arrive, search for their love, and leave after not finding her. However, during their search, they have picked up the pollen and will fly away, following her scent elsewhere.
In terms of shape, some orchids are very manipulative! In slipper orchids, the slipper is filled with a sweet smelling liquid. Bees land on a small landing pad above the liquid to scrape the sweet-smelling stuff onto them to attract females. Unfortunately for the bees, the landing pad is very slippery and the bee often falls in! In order to escape from drowning, the bee is forced to climb through a small opening in the orchid’s lip, right below where the pollen sacs are stored. As the bee escapes, he unknowingly collects pollen sacs on his back. Fortunately for the orchid, the bee does not learn his lesson and he will go to the next sweet-smelling orchid to, again, rub the stuff on himself and falls in, this time transferring the pollen from one orchid to the next.
Other orchids have a shape that insects either love or hate! Some orchids have lips that are designed to look like female wasps. As male wasps get close, he sees that beautiful wasp and tries to mate with her. Unfortunately for him, it’s actually the lip of an orchid, so he goes off to try to mate with a different female. Fortunately for the orchid, that male wasp is now coated in pollen that was attached to the lip. Other orchids will look like the male wasp, not to encourage females to visit, but to look like a wasp that might be encroaching on another male’s territory. The male wasp will fight the intruder, scraping against the pollen during the interaction before he figures out that the orchid is not actually a wasp.
While this sort of trickery seems highly specific (that male wasp will only mate or fight others of his kind), scientists have discovered that this sexual trickery is the most efficient manner of spreading orchid pollen! Orchids that aren’t so selective and invite bees, butterflies, and birds to explore their pollen, often end up losing the pollen as the bee may venture off to explore a completely separate flower species before landing on the next same-species orchid. The ones that exploit a specific species of wasp looking to mate ensures that their pollen will only reach the next same-species orchid since the wasp will only be fooled by that species.
Enjoy a compilation of some of my favorite orchid photos from the Cleveland Botanical Gardens during their “Orchid Mania” show in February 2019.
The diversity of orchids never ceases to astound me! Bring these orchids home, without having high-maintenance houseplants, by finding these and other photo prints in my store!
Want to photography flowers like these? Join me for my upcoming photo walk and look for my other events!