The Cock-Blocking Flower – Bee Orchid

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.

Ophrys apifera.

Ophrys lupercalis with male bee.

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.

Ophrys bombyliflora.

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.

Ophrys insectifera with male wasp.

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.

2. Pollan, Michael. “Love and Lies.” National Geographic Magazine. National Geographic Society, Sept. 2009. Web. 23 June 2015. <;.

3. Curtis, John T. “The relation of specificity of orchid mycorrhizal fungi to the problem of symbiosis.” American Journal of Botany (1939): 390-399.

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The World’s Longest Leaves – Welwitschia

Welwitschia is a genus containing only one single plant – Welwitschia mirabilis. This is a most unusual plant that is endemic to the Namib desert in Namibia and Angola. It was discovered in 1859 by Australian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch who is quoted as having said “[I] could do nothing but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination.” It has only two leaves, one on each side of its base. These leaves continue to grow throughout the plant’s lifetime and become more frayed the older it gets, which can be anywhere from 400 to 1,500 years old! They can reach from six to twelve feet in length, sometimes longer, and the central portion can grow up to six and a half feet tall. This gives it an appearance that is slightly reminiscent of a Tangela or Tangrowth, if you’re a Pokémon fan or, as one site puts it, a “dehydrated monster octopus.” The leaves are very thick, rigid, and leathery to lock in the little moisture the plant is able to get in its arid habitat.

Yes, that’s just two leaves!

Welwitschia plants are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Both sexes of plant produce cone like structures that make sugary nectar to attract pollinators such as desert beetles and possibly hornets. After the female plant’s cones are fertilized, it takes nine months for them to reach maturity. The actual germination of a new plant depends upon the amount of water available to it. The seeds require several days of heavy rain in order for this to work. Once established, the only moisture the plant lives off of is coastal fog that drifts in, the very, very occasional rainfall, and what it can reach with its deep taproot.

Female cones

Male cones

Perhaps the funniest thing about welwitschia plants is that they are actually a type of dwarf conifer tree related to pines. They couldn’t look less like trees if they tried, but there you are. The weirdest looking tree species ever discovered.

1. Zimmerman, J. “Ancient Tree of Africa: Welwitschia (Welwitschia Mirabilis).” Ancient Tree of Africa: Welwitschia (Welwitschia Mirabilis). J. Zimmerman, 2001. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.

2. Mateos, Cristina E. “Welwitschia (Welwitschia Mirabilis) – Encyclopedia of Life.” Encyclopedia of Life. Natural History Museum, London, 21 July 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. .

3. Albuquerque, Sara. “Welwitschia Mirabilis (tree Tumbo).” Welwitschia Mirabilis (tree Tumbo). Ed. Steven Bachman, Emma Tredwell, and Owlen Grace. Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <

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