Sexual Deception

All plants have a strategy for reproduction but that of the Bee orchid is especially interesting. It has developed so that in appearance it resembles a female bee – the pink sepals to the back of the flower resemble wings while the three petals to the front are extremely modified: two are short and stumpy and the third, the labellum or lip of the flower, is coloured reddish-brown and is furry and patterned to resemble a bee’s undercarriage. As if that were not enough to amaze our poor human brains, this flower also produces a fragrance, chemical pheromones, which perfectly matches those emitted by a female bee to attract a male.

The bee orchid is widespread in Ireland and Great Britain but not common and is at the northern limits of its range. The Mediterranean region is more home ground and the solitary bee, Eucera longicornis, has been observed attempting copulation – or “pseudocopulation” as the botanist would describe it for, let’s face it, it’s not the real thing whatever the bee might wish for. The flower design works!

While the orchid can live happily in these northern areas, the bee is a bit of a softie and prefers to take his pleasure in warmer climes only. The orchid flowers in April in Mediterranean areas coinciding with the emergence of the male bee but before that of the female and so the only outlet for his sexual desire is the attractive orchid. The northern bee orchids flower in June – timing is not critical when the “partner” bee is not around – and, besides, all of the bee orchids, northern and southern, have also perfected the act of self-pollination so, in fact, the bee is actually redundant. If the orchid had a brain, a self-awareness, a sense of humour, I imaging they must be, well, laughing their little heads off at these stupid bees bonking so enthusiastically to absolutely no avail.  

I photographed this flower recently and realised when looking at it afterwards that there was a good sprinkling of pollen on the labellum – the “belly” of the bee – and wondered if some Irish bee had been taken in by the flower’s deception, had fallen for its attractive appearance and fragrance? Was it good for him, I wondered? Is there a good reason for that smiling expression on the flower’s face? And, then I wondered what was Mona Lisa smiling about?


12 thoughts on “Sexual Deception

  1. Hello Paddy,
    A great piece and interesting about their ability to self pollinate which I didn’t realise.
    I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at our hybrid orchids and even though we now have clusters which you’d think would attract bees, I usually see bees approach and then move on without landing. Since they’re varied hybrids of Heath Spotted Orchids, I guess there must be some pollination involved, and if you read some early observation based German honeybee texts, they talk about bees returning to the hive with the 2 orchid pollen containing structures, or pollinia, stuck to their backs, which they’re dislodged after visiting the flowers, but the only insect I’ve ever seen entering a flower was an attractively coloured beetle a few years back.
    An amusing thought about the Mona Lisa…
    You might be interested in this other example of plants attracting in pollinators, which links into the use of alcohol by a palm’s flowers as a bait to attract tree shrews – there’s a great discussion about how the tiny shrews manage to avoid a hangover… Enjoy!
    Best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Only if you’ve got the right amount of alcohol processing enzymes, I suspect. Which in part at least relates to past habits, I guess.
        I wonder if any bright spark has actually looked at levels in human hair??
        But as you say, we’re both a bit long in the tooth, and follicularly challenged for that to be much of a strategy!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that if we need proof of life arriving here from other planets it is orchids.
    It is extraordinary that orchids go to such extreme measures to ensure pollination and yet grasses are perfectly successful and yet they just fling their pollen on the wind and leave it to chance. Makes you wonder!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Paddy! I so enjoyed your blog on the Bee Orchid. We have wild Lady Slippers here that bloom in May, and it seems to me that all orchids “dress for success” in attracting pollinators, no matter where they live. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, goodness – Lady Slippers! How brilliant to have them. I grow a few in the garden, two, and love them. I was out this morning and found a patch of 150 approximately bee orchids all together with many many more scattered around.

      Liked by 1 person

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