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National Public Radio, August 22, 2009

Orchids: 'Inflatable Love Dolls Of The Floral Kingdom'
By Christian Ziegler, National Geographic Magazine

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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."

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."

Copyright 2009 NPR

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton