The cunning trickery of Ophrys orchids

Life has devised a multitude of strategies to adapt and survive, such as mimesis. We all quickly think of examples from the animal kingdom, such as syrphids, some caterpillars, various butterflies or spiders that resemble ants. However, plants are not far behind.

Orchids of the genus Ophrys sp. are true works of art of nature. When we contemplate their extravagant inflorescences, we cannot avoid comparing them to some hymenopterans, which is why they are also known as bee orchids.

ophrys apifera - orchid deception-mimetism-orchids that fool bees-orchids that deceive bees
Orchids of the species Ophrys apifera have a strong morphological and chemical resemblance to the females of some solitary hymenopterans. Wikipedia

Let’s consider Ophrys apifera, for example. Its flower, and specifically the labellum, reproduces with astonishing precision the characteristics of the females of some solitary hymenopterans, such as hairiness, colors or body shape. But there is more, because the plant also imitates the smell of these insects through pheromones whose chemical composition is practically identical to that used by females during mating to attract their counterpart.

These orchids need an insect to collect their pollen and pollinate them in order to reproduce. The problem is that they are very selfish and do not offer a gift in return to attract them, as other plants do with nectar. However, they have this alternative and extremely effective strategy to deceive them. Hymenopteran males cannot avoid being tempted: How can they not think that these flowers are females if they smell the same, have the same feel and look the same? In the end they succumb and end up mating unsuccessfully with the flower. It is at that moment when a mechanism is triggered that impregnates the insect’s head with pollen. It is only a matter of time before the insect lands on another orchid of the same species to complete fertilization.

ophrys apifera - orchid deception-mimetism-orchids that fool bees-orchids that deceive bees
Ophrys apifera. La Naturaleza en un Clic

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