Deception at its Finest

Does this flower look like a bee to you? It does to bees, too.
Image by Henry Hemming via Wikimedia Commons

Survival of the fittest doesn’t always have to be a vicious competition. Plenty of species grow and develop together over time by providing mutual benefits for each other. Perhaps one of the finest examples is the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera).

The bee orchid grows across Europe, stretching across the Middle East to Northern Africa. While it can pollinate itself, this orchid’s distinctive look is the result of teamwork. At the top of a slender stalk, three pointed, pink sepals (tough petal-like structures that enclose a flower before it opens) form a triangle. At the bottom of the triangle is a large and hairy petal patterned in brown and yellow to look like a bee . . . or at least what passes for a bee among flowers. But the deception doesn’t stop there. The flower also secrete a chemical compound called allomones that closely mimic the pheromones produced by a female bee. This ruse proves all too convincing to bees who, while attempting to mate with the petal, are gently patted with pollen from two drumstick like structures suspended over the mouth of the flower.

This might seem like a cruel trick on the part of the orchid. True, the bee will unwittingly carry its pollen to other orchids, but in return the bee gets nectar to eat, a coating of perfume that makes him more attractive to other mates and perhaps some much needed self-confidence. 

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

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