Bee orchids of the genus Ophrys are such seductive flowers to male bees and wasps that the insects actually prefer the sexy smell of the orchids to the scent of ready, virgin female bees and wasps. These many species of flowers are found in central and South Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus Mountains. Most of them are from around the Mediterranean, however. Once an orchid grows in its spot, it is very difficult to transplant because of the symbiotic fungi in its roots that it needs in order to live. Disturbing this relationship usually ends badly for the orchid, so it is not easy to cultivate. The leaves are at the base of the plant and have a greenish blue coloring with a very shiny surface. The flowers of different species vary as much as the insects they attract. Each distinct species relies solely on a specific insect for its pollination. The types of insects that pollinate bee orchids are typically bees and wasps, but some varieties depend on beetles.
Everything about a bee orchid flower is designed to lure and seduce horny male insects to come and make love to it. It uses special chemicals to replicate the scent of a virgin female almost perfectly, but with slight differences. These small variations in scent are actually what make it so irresistible. Discrepancies in perfume signify differences in genetics and bees are naturally attracted to slight difference because it helps to prevent inbreeding. Ophrys blossoms also use tactile and visual mimicry to appeal to the sex-hungry boys. The lower half of the flower has the same shape and coloring of females of the target species and resembles a female visiting or resting on the flower. Velvety fuzz gives it the feel of a female and draws the bewitched male even deeper into the flower where it proceeds to mate with it and become coated in pollen. Once the insect figures out that it’s been tricked, the orchid has already done what it needed to do. When the stupid, love-struck bee, wasp, or beetle flies over and gets fooled by another orchid flower, pollination occurs and the whole thing starts over again.
Eventually, insects will catch on to the orchid’s sexual game and stop visiting those flowers altogether. Fortunately for the orchid, there are plenty more males that will fall for the disguise and they also produce up to 12,000 tiny seeds to go forth and create new plants, thus spreading their beautiful sexual deception across the land.
1. Govaerts, G. “ Ophrys L., Sp. Pl.: 948 (1753).” World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, n.d. Web. 23 June, 2015. http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/namedetail.do?name_id=140696
2. Pollan, Michael. “Love and Lies.” National Geographic Magazine. National Geographic Society, Sept. 2009. Web. 23 June 2015. <http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2009/09/orchids/pollan-text>.
3. Curtis, John T. “The relation of specificity of orchid mycorrhizal fungi to the problem of symbiosis.” American Journal of Botany (1939): 390-399.