Pseudocopulation in orchids

August 19, 2010 • 5:26 am

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 thoughts on “Pseudocopulation in orchids

  1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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 :(.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

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