Orchids: 'Inflatable Love Dolls Of The Floral Kingdom' You might know something about the birds and the bees, but did you know the bees have been having a fling with the orchids? Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, has written about the scandalous affair and says orchids "practice some very weird sex."
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Orchids: 'Inflatable Love Dolls Of The Floral Kingdom'

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Orchids: 'Inflatable Love Dolls Of The Floral Kingdom'

Orchids: 'Inflatable Love Dolls Of The Floral Kingdom'

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Dear listeners, I think it's about time we had a talk about the birds and the bees - and the orchids. The vivid, vibrant little flowers give what amount to come-hither looks to bees. You could call orchids the Scarlet O'Hara of flowers. Some even emit an aroma — kind of Givenchy for male bees that tricks the bees into thinking the orchid is a female bee who finds them irresistible. Fools.

Michael Pollan is the author of "Lies and Love," a National Geographic article about the ways in which orchids attract bees and keep their own species going. He joins us from the journalism school at the University of California Berkeley. Michael, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author): Sure, Scott. Good to be here.

SIMON: Most of us think we know about the birds and the bees - I hope my daughters aren't listening. What about the birds and the bees and the orchids?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, the orchids, as it turns out, practice some very weird sex, even by the standards of the animal world. The reproductive strategy of several different orchid species involves tricking bees into thinking that the orchids themselves are female bees.

I'm speaking now of the Ophrys orchid, also called the prostitute orchid. We found it in Sardinia, and this is the one that has evolved to look like a bee, as viewed from the rear, with her head stuck in a green flower. The male bee proceeds to pseudo-copulate and realizes at some point that this isn't working or feeling the way it's supposed to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: And…

SIMON: This is not what my father told me.


SIMON: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. POLLAN: And breaks off and goes looking for a more suitable mate, in this frenzy though, because he's been aroused. And he starts looking around madly for another bloom. And when he finds that other bloom, he commences to pseudo-copulate again and deposits the pollen of the orchids.

SIMON: It's not just bees though, right? Wasps, butterflies?

Mr. POLLAN: Oh no, wasps too. I mean, there's actually another case - which I didn't get to see - the Tongue Orchid. This orchids fools a wasp into thinking it is a female of that wasp's species - the Lissopimpla excels wasp. The wasp begins to pseudo-copulate with it. And the weird thing is it actually ejaculates, which seems seriously maladaptive. The literature describes it as costly sperm wastage.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. POLLAN: But in fact it's a very clever strategy both for the flower and for the wasp. And here's how: This is a kind of wasp that when the female gets sperm from a male, it produces roughly equal amounts of males and female offspring. But when it doesn't get male sperm, it can still reproduce, but what it reproduces is a lot more males. So you see, 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 because there's so many males and therefore won't be picky about mates and will go ahead and have sex with flowers. So that's very clever.

But then you have to worry about, you know, all this costly sperm wastage on flowers. And it turns out, though - and this is something that might be true for other species - that basically having sex with anything that moves, on balance, is a good reproductive strategy for males. Even though they're wasting sperm…

SIMON: Boy, I wish you hadn't phrased it that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: It probably wasn't the most solicitous way to do it.

SIMON: No, I - it's perfectly airable. I just mean…

Mr. POLLAN: Troubling.

SIMON: …it's not supposed to be modern thinking. Yes, exactly, yeah.

Mr. POLLAN: No, it's not modern thinking at all. But it appears to be natural history thinking. The people who've studied this question thinks that 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 is a wasp or it looks like a wasp.

But make no mistake: these are the inflatable love dolls of the floral kingdom and they get a lot of attention.

SIMON: You know, downstairs, where my family and I live, is a flower store. And they weren't open this morning yet as I was leaving. But there were some bees outside and I wanted to say to them, I know what you're after.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You are the Woody Allen of the insect world.

Mr. POLLAN: Although we shouldn't laugh at them, because we too have been implicated in this whole thing. I mean, that orchid store down from your apartment has hybrid orchids. 'Cause we pollinate orchids too, of course, in the orchid industry. And we're responsible for, you know, 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.

SIMON: Michael, thank you so much.

Mr. POLLAN: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: We learned something from you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: It's always fun. I appreciate it. I love your show.

SIMON: Thanks very much. Michael Pollan…

Mr. POLLAN: Okay.

SIMON: …his article "Lies and Love" is in the September issue of National Geographic. By the way, if searching for photos or orchids and bees makes you nervous you're going to wind up on somebody's watch list, you can find those photos and more by coming to our Web site, the new NPR.org.

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