Wednesday, September 2, 2009
I had no idea orchids were so cunning and sexually deceptive until I read this fascinating National Geographic article, written by Michael Pollan, about how they alter their appearance and smell to trick horny insects into doing the pollinating for them. I feel really immature for admitting this, but I loved every corny sexual innuendo and how Pollan makes sure that he quotes the pros on their wacky/stuffy way of explaining things. The article can be long for people with short attention spans, such as myself (though I did read all of it, yeay me!), so here's a snippet, along with Christian Ziegler's photographs. Let's learn about slutty orchids, shall we?
The real male bee alights on the beelike labellum and attempts to mate, or in the words of one botanical reference, begins "performing movements which look like an abnormally vigorous and prolonged attempt at copulation." In the midst of these fruitless exertions, the bee jostles the orchid's column (a structure that houses both the male and female sexual organs), and two yellow sacs packed with pollen (called the pollinia) are stuck to his back with a quick-drying gluelike substance. Frustration mounts, until eventually it dawns on the bee that he has been had. He abruptly flies off, pollinia firmly attached, in frantic search of more authentic female companionship.
There was something poignant about the bee I spotted, flying around madly with what looked like a chubby pair of yellow oxygen tanks strapped to his back. He'd been deluded by the promise of sex—bee sex—when in fact all that was on offer was plant sex, and unbeknownst to the bee, now searching for a second, more satisfactory liaison, he was right in the middle of that act. Botanists have been known to refer to pollen-carrying bees as "flying penises," but of course most of the world's bees perform in that role unwittingly, with food rather than sex on the brain.
In conclusion, I think orchids have brains.