Pollination is a hoax
Text by Alejandra Ortiz
Photographs by Toumani Camara
There’s a certain orchid that looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower, its double, its soul mate, and wants nothing more than to make love to it, thus pollinating it. And neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives?
If the insect from the movie Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) found out that his love act was a sham, the orchid at hand would become extinct. Most flowering plants use insects as vehicles to transport pollen –equivalent to sperm in animals– from one plant to the other, thus achieving reproduction. They usually attract them with smells or colors and offer some sort of reward, like nectar.
In many species of orchids, the insect’s promise is sex, but it is a false promise. Certain parts of the orchid have evolved in a way that they physically resemble some insect species’ females, like bees and wasps, which is how they attract the males. The latter try to copulate with the flower thinking it’s a female, and by doing so, their bodies end up filled with pollen. When they finally realize that their attempt has been in vain, they look for another female and, without learning their lesson, try to copulate with another flower, smearing the previous pollen and thus achieving the sexual act, although not their own, but the flower’s. Such a sad and misleading act is coined pseudocopulation, and the strategy that the flower uses is a form of mimicry.
In nature, mimicry is a trick in disguise, particularly other species’ costumes. Sometimes the costume is used to pretend they are more venomous or threatening, more appetizing or that you could fall in love with. Camouflage is different because mimicry emulates another species and not the environment. Generally, it is the physical or morphological that us humans detect easier, but mimicry also occurs in other presentations. For example, when the Zonosemata genus of flies meets a garden spider, they adjust and move their wings in a way that they simulate the spider’s attacking position, namely, becoming an opponent instead of a prey for the spider, who escapes, frightened and hungry, because its goal was to eat the fly.
Aromas are another invisible yet powerful way of misleading because attraction, fear and other instincts are frequently invoked by smell. Various flowers are known for their smell of rotting meat that attracts flies and other scavengers that enter and pollinate them. Some orchids have perfected their olfactory deception. In addition to physically resembling insects’ potential mates, several species emulate certain aromatic compounds similar to the pheromone of pollinators seeking to reproduce. There are other orchids whose strategy is a little more complex. Dendrobium sinense emits a similar odor that bees produce when they’re in danger to alert the others, and this in turn attracts the Philanthus triangulum wasp that locates its preys precisely because of this odor. The wasp’s behavior when reaching the flower is clearly one of attack, not pseudocopulation.
Because orchids have been the masters of disguise, they’ve also been a model for deception. The Hymenopus coronatus mantis peacefully awaits, like the petals of a flower, for an insect to visit said flower to obtain nectar as usual, and when it has it close, it catches and swallows it. The similarity between the mantis and the flower is amazing: every one of the insect’s legs has an extension that looks like the petals of the orchid. In its abdomen, there are three lines that would correspond to the stigma where the pollen is produced. In addition, the colors are incredibly similar to those of the orchid, where it lands to perpetuate its trick.
So many species trick or are tricked, or serve as a model to trick without knowing. Mimicry is one of the most successful evolutionary strategies for various purposes, always using a mirage of the desires or fears of the fooled.