Pseudocopulation in orchids

A well known botanical phenomenon—one that I mention in WEIT—is pseudocopulation, in which orchids attract insect pollinators by modifying their labellum (one of the petals) to roughly resemble a bee or a wasp.  Short-sighted male insects mistake the labellum for a female, land on it, and try to copulate.  Their efforts are of course fruitless, but this is the way the orchid gets itself pollinated. During the act, the insect dislodges the pollinia (a mass of pollen grains stuck together) from the orchid, which sticks to its body, ready to pollinate the next orchid on which it lands (insects apparently have short memories).

There are of course many cases in which insects have evolved to resemble plants to hide themselves from either predators or prey. Insect-mimicking orchids are more or less the reverse, with the plant using the insect as a kind of flying sex organ.  Sometimes, in a form of deceptive chemical mimicry, natural selection has even modified the orchid’s fragrance to resemble the pollinator’s pheromones.  Click on the link in the second line to see more examples of pseudocopulation.

Here’s the Australian orchid Chilglottis formicifera, pollinated by pseudocopulating wasps.

Here’s Ophrys speculum, a wasp mimic, and an Attenborough video of a randy bee attempting copulation with that orchid but achieving pollination:


Often the flower’s mimicry is so precise that you can guess the pollinator.  I saw this flower yesterday, which stumped me at first:

But then I realized that it’s probably pollinated by this:

26 Comments

  1. MosesZD
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    OMG! I remember Teletubbies… My daughter was really into them.

    Here’s some teletubby trivia:

    The ACTORS were NOT dwarfs. The set was scaled up to make them look small. Tinky Winky, in full costume, including the antenna on his head (male actor inside the suit) was over 9′ (almost 10′) tall. The actors looked out of the mouths of the teletubbies.

    To get the rabbits in scale to the “toddler” teletubbies, they used Flemish Giants which can get up to 30lbs.

    The entire series was shot out-doors in rural England. The teletubby dome was over 16′ tall.

  2. Posted August 19, 2010 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Teletubbies love WEIT very very much!

  3. Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I think calling insects pseudocopulating with flowers ‘fruitless’ is precisely the wrong word to use, this would have to be the paradigmatic example of a ‘fruitful’ activity. 😉

  4. Steve
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I think this is a more likely candidate for your pollinator:

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Even better! I forgot about Barney.

      • Scott Wallace
        Posted August 19, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        Looks kinda like a baby hedgehog to me…

  5. puzzledponderer
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    I’m not so sure the effort is “fruit”less, more like “larvae”less…

    • puzzledponderer
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Oops, Konrad beat me to it.

  6. Posted August 19, 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I heard frogs do the same thing to pollinate chimps…

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      bwa ha

    • palefury
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      That poor poor frog. The way he got tucked under the chimps arm for later :(.

      • Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        I’m not familiar with the relative sizes of chimpanzee genitalia and frog esophagi, so I could be wrong about this assumption — but I have a feeling that “later” might not have been much of a concern from the frog’s perspective, if you know what I mean…

        Which makes the whole thing even more disturbing.

        • palefury
          Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          I am not sure about the relative sizes either. But if once wasn’t bad enough, again has got to be worse.

          I wonder if frogs have sufficient cognitive powers to realize what he was being tucked under the arm for?!?!?

          Either way poor poor poor frog :(.

    • MosesZD
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      lol.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    A more exact analogy to the last pollinator is from one of the Marvel’s team “Excalibur” comics, an opposite interstellar team member “babyoid”, who levitated around with a baby smile and went “Wootie!” As it happens, you can see him hover around to the right of the cover.

    [Yes, he had a Marvel power. IIRC he caused people to “rubberize” on contact, to flop around helplessly and brainlessly. The real Marvel is why I read comics once.]

    pseudocopulation … Short-sighted male insects

    The best analogy I can come up with from an insect perspective is a song by a local musician and humorist about his adventures with his “inflatable Barbara”. He even likes to wear glasses from time to time, IIRC.

  8. Naturalistbiologist
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I want to know if the flowers affect the success of the female bees and wasps. Is there a sort of game of catch-up going on here?

  9. Bob Carlson
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    In 2009 National Geographic had a nice article on the subject. An interesting quote from that article:

    What about the poor wasp? Why hasn’t natural selection killed off an insect so dumb as to have sex with flowers? The best explanation I’ve heard is from John Alcock, who says that although the wasp may occasionally waste his genes on a plant, his “extreme sexual enthusiasm” is still a better reproductive strategy for an insect than being cautious about one’s choice of mate. On balance, having sex with anything that moves yields more offspring, even if it also leads to occasional romantic disaster.

    The YouTube video mentioned in the article is here.

    • articulett
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      My observations lead me to observe that the sex drive for most males is very strong– but not necessarily very specific.

      It’s unlikely that the wasp is the only critter that has evolved this reproduction strategy.

      • Notagod
        Posted August 20, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        It’s not as easy as you think when you don’t have eyes in your thinking part.

        However, I also note the large and almost endless variety of vibrators marketed to those that supposedly have their thinking part above.

  10. normanbates
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Once I was dating a pretty young woman – taking this article into account I think she must have been some kind of human-adapted orchid.

  11. Screechy Monkey
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s bad enough that one of the Teletubbies was gay (according to Jerry Falwell), now you’re telling me one of them like to have sex with a different species!

    • Urmensch
      Posted August 19, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Was that because he misheard and thought its name was Stinky Winky?

  12. Posted August 20, 2010 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post! Great photos, and I think I watched the video 3 times… 🙂


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