Orchids: 'Inflatable Love Dolls Of The Floral Kingdom'

  • While most plants self-pollinate, orchids have some of the most elaborate pollination systems, relying heavily on insects and birds to reproduce. In this case, a hummingbird's bill closely matches the color of the Panamanian orchid's pollen sac, so that the bundle is borne away unnoticed.
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    While most plants self-pollinate, orchids have some of the most elaborate pollination systems, relying heavily on insects and birds to reproduce. In this case, a hummingbird's bill closely matches the color of the Panamanian orchid's pollen sac, so that the bundle is borne away unnoticed.
    Photos by Christian Ziegler/National Geographic/Christian Ziegler
  • According to Michael Pollan, "in the mountains of Sardinia ... orchids grow like roadside weeds." These mirror orchids imitate almost perfectly the reflection of blue sky on a female wasp's wings, attracting male wasps.
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    According to Michael Pollan, "in the mountains of Sardinia ... orchids grow like roadside weeds." These mirror orchids imitate almost perfectly the reflection of blue sky on a female wasp's wings, attracting male wasps.
    Christian Ziegler
  • The lengths to which these orchids have gone to resemble female bees is a natural marvel. To this male bee, a wild Italian hybrid orchid resembles his female counterpart.
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    The lengths to which these orchids have gone to resemble female bees is a natural marvel. To this male bee, a wild Italian hybrid orchid resembles his female counterpart.
    Christian Ziegler
  • Don't be fooled by this orchid's vivid coloration. Upon closer olfactory inspection, this flower smells rotten — repugnant to us, irresistible to a fly.
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    Don't be fooled by this orchid's vivid coloration. Upon closer olfactory inspection, this flower smells rotten — repugnant to us, irresistible to a fly.
    Christian Ziegler
  • Not only have orchids made incredible adaptations in appearance, they are also mechanically complex. These male Catasetum flowers hide a pollen-loaded slingshot, which fires a sticky bundle when a pollinator, such as a bee, jostles it.
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    Not only have orchids made incredible adaptations in appearance, they are also mechanically complex. These male Catasetum flowers hide a pollen-loaded slingshot, which fires a sticky bundle when a pollinator, such as a bee, jostles it.
    Christian Ziegler
  • These rabbit-shaped blooms in Borneo are no larger than your fingernail, and belong to a tropical genus on the Equator that may date back as far as 80 million years.
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    These rabbit-shaped blooms in Borneo are no larger than your fingernail, and belong to a tropical genus on the Equator that may date back as far as 80 million years.
    Christian Ziegler
  • This nectarless pansy orchid, found in Australia, closely resembles a neighboring plant, the pea flower.
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    This nectarless pansy orchid, found in Australia, closely resembles a neighboring plant, the pea flower.
    Christian Ziegler
  • Every orchid has a petal modified for pollination, such as the red petal on this Australian king spider orchid.  The perfume from this flower attracts several male wasps, one of which will take away the plant's pollen.
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    Every orchid has a petal modified for pollination, such as the red petal on this Australian king spider orchid. The perfume from this flower attracts several male wasps, one of which will take away the plant's pollen.
    Christian Ziegler

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You might know something about the birds and the bees, but did you know the bees have been having a fling with the orchids? The vivid, vibrant little flowers give what amount to come-hither looks to bees. Some even emit an aroma — a kind of Givenchy for male bees — that tricks the bees into thinking that the orchid is a female bee who finds them irresistible.

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, has written about the scandalous affair in September's National Geographic magazine. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that orchids "practice some very weird sex — even by the standards of the animal world."

The Ophrys orchid, otherwise known as the "prostitute orchid," has actually evolved to look like a female bee, viewed from the rear, with her head stuck in a green flower. The male bee starts to "pseudo-copulate," but soon realizes it's not working. Aroused, he breaks off for a more suitable mate and frantically tries again with another bloom. His exertions aren't all in vain; he does succeed in pollinating the flower.

But it's not just bees that fall for the orchid's wiles. The tongue orchid fools male Lissopimpla excelsa wasps into thinking it's a female wasp. In this case, however, the male wasp actually ejaculates onto the flower. This "costly sperm wastage" seems "seriously maladaptive," says Pollan, "but in fact, it's a very clever strategy for the flower and for the wasp."

This kind of wasp produces roughly equal amounts of male and female offspring when a female gets sperm from a male. However, without a male, the female can still produce offspring — but she produces a lot more males. "So the orchid is actually inducing its pollinator into having a large population of males who, of course, are all pollinators and will have to compete fiercely for females."

On National Geographic's Web Site

Read Michael Pollan's article and see more of Christian Ziegler's photos.

For this species, Pollan says, "having sex with anything that moves, on balance, is a good reproductive strategy for males." A male wasp that's overly picky about its mates will end up leaving less offspring than a male that goes off and has sex with anything that looks like a wasp.

"These are the inflatable love dolls of the floral kingdom," Pollan says, but "we shouldn't laugh at them, because we, too, have been implicated in the whole thing."

"We pollinate orchids too, of course, in the orchid industry. And we're responsible for hundreds of thousands of new sexual combinations that would have been literally inconceivable without us. So I hate to say it, but we're as much orchid dupes now as the bees."

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