Lies. lies, lies. Sounds like something Mr Trump would say, don’t you think? Fake it ’til you make it, otherwise known as cognitive behaviour therapy. It also describes the internet perfectly. Have you ever wondered what human nature is? Isn’t it just nature? Sorry, I’m amusing myself. All this fake news has got me thinking. Specifically, I am thinking you might enjoy learning about a little bit of trickery in the orchid world. I am talking about sex, lies and infidelity, ladies and gentlemen.
Everyone likes orchids, don’t they? But they can be tricky characters to propagate. Members of my family are orchid hunters. They enjoy scouting bushland and woods looking for colonies of Australian native orchids. I recently overheard the orchid hunters talking about the amazing pollination habits of some orchids. They explained that there are a good number of orchids that practice sexual deception to attract pollinators. Male insects (bees, wasps, gnats) are attracted by the scent emitted by the orchid. These scents mimic the sex pheromones used by the pollinator species to attract a mate. In some cases the labellum of the flower also mimics the physical attributes of the female insect. Now these relationships between insect and flower aren’t purely platonic. The males really go for it. The polite term for this is pseudo-copulation. In the process of shagging, pollen is transferred to the male insect, who then passes it on to the next lucky flower.
It makes sense that this relationship is often species-specific with individual species of orchids being pollinated by just one species of insect. This maximises the chance that the collected pollen ends up in the right flower. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? But it gets even more bizarre. Often the female of the pollinator species doesn’t need her eggs to be fertilised in order to reproduce. She can produce male offspring from unfertilised eggs, which is good for the orchid-mistress. When the male is done with dallying, and the female’s eggs are fertilised, then she produces female offspring. Whoa, that is some threesome!
I asked my son whether he had any sex photos, but he didn’t. He suggested I ask fellow orchid hunter, Tobias Hayashi, whether he could share some photos with me. He could and did – a couple of photos of spider orchids with their respective wasp pollinators. Tobias is currently doing his PhD on orchids and fungus gnats. Tobias is also a brilliant photographer, native orchids and birds being his specialty. If you like his photos below, you will love the photos on his website. They are truly awesome. Check them out here.
The first photo is of Caladenia phaeoclavia with its thynnine wasp pollinator, Lophocheilus anilitatus.
The other is of Caladenia actensis with its undescribed thynnine wasp pollinator. The focus of Tobias’ Honours research was on trying to find the previously unknown pollinator of C actensis. C actensis is endangered and known only from in and around northern Canberra. Tobias tells me that the wasp in this photo is actually a rather small individual and probably too small to achieve pollination (it needs to be big enough to get the pollen on its back). He found that almost half the individuals that visited the orchids were probably too small to pollinate them, despite them all being the same species.
I understand that in order to improve their chances of attracting the insect lads, orchids will compete with one another to emit the best scent and present the best (and biggest) lady bits. Maybe in this process, they also receive the attention of some suitors that do not have what it takes to make the grade. Just guessing.
I would like to thank Tobias Hayashi for contributing photos for this post. I hope, dear Readers, that you were as fascinated as I was, to learn of these saucy goings-on in the plant world. Orchids are fascinating for many more reasons, but that is a story for another day.