Ah, the humble flower. Often surrounded by kin, potential friends and partners, yet always somehow alone. Sometimes straining in the wind for just a gentle touch, the slightest caress, yet all around surge away as one. But what happens when every time you reach out, all others move aside? What can you do when you feel there is another flower out there, one just like you, one with which to share your thoughts and dreams and aspirations and poems you wrote at high school and, most importantly, your gametes?
Just as a shy teenager, crippled with insecurities, might ask a friend to pass a message on to a girl in class, so plants may harness the power of proxy. Insect pollinators, buzzing from flower to flower with a gametic note attached, are often bribed with food rewards of nectar or pollen as part of this sexy bargain. However, in another parallel with sullen human teens, orchids despise such brazen capitalist tendencies.
Instead, they lure these pollinators, their little sex proxies, with sweetly perfumed and brightly coloured promises of food, promises they will never come good on. But this is not deception enough for some orchids, no. In a cruel twist, they can actually mimic the sex pheromones of the female of a particular insect species, driving the males wild with lust. The orchid’s labellum even imitates the look of the seductive female, tempting the male over to attempt copulation. And as he does so, grinding away in an ultimately fruitless pseudocopulatory frenzy, the orchid gently attaches some pollen to him, to be passed on to the next player in this nefarious reproductive game.
The image above shows the wasp Neozeleboria cryptoides attempting copulation with the “bird orchid”, Chiloglottis valida. The flower mimics the sex pheromone of a female wasp so precisely that the male cannot distinguish between the mimic and the real deal. In one genus of Australian orchids (Cryptostylis), the wasp can even be provoked into ejaculating with the orchid.
You may say to yourself, why sully yourself in such a manner? Why not just pay for this service? And isn’t allowing a wasp to engage in intercourse with you to the point of ejaculation akin to a warped form of bestiality?
To which the orchid would sigh, close its black moleskine notebook, and gaze up at the Che Guevara poster on its wall. Don’t push your human morality on me, man, it says. You just wouldn’t understand.
More information on orchid pollination can be found here:
The original image was provided by and is the copyright of Mike Whitehead, who studies this system in Australia, and from whom I first learned all about this weird shit when we met at ESEB 2011. Check out some more of his excellent photographs of this particular species in action:
You can see more of his photography and find out about his research at his personal website:
..or just follow him on twitter: