The Orchid and the Orchid Bee: A Love Story

Carlos Zorrilla

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There are innumerable fascinating plant-animal interactions in the world’s forests, and the more so in tropical forests. During the past four decades I’ve had the fortune to make my home in the tropical cloud forest region of Ecuador called Intag. Of the many things I enjoy about living here, besides watching the magic of clouds caressing the forest, is discovering new things, and deepening my understanding of those I thought I knew. This, then, is the case of one of those plant-animal interactions; that of a wild bee and an orchid, which I was fortunate enough to see and photograph.

Besides the outrageous beauty of the forest and the graceful dance of the clouds, it is the astounding biodiversity that surround me that really makes this place special. A great deal of that diversity is made up of orchids. With approximately 4,200 species, or about 15% of the world’s total, Ecuador is number one in the world for orchids. The numbers are staggering: Ecuador has more orchids than the whole of continental Africa. Here in Intag, for example, there is easily more orchid species in an area of a few thousand hectares than the total of most countries. Incredibly, Ecuador has more orchids than Brazil, which is 32 times bigger.

As in the case of most of the tropics, illegal logging, agriculture and cattle ranching are the main culprits threatening orchids, with illegal collection also affecting some species. However, here in Intag, and to a large extent, the rest of Ecuador, large-scale mining is unquestionably the main threat. It is a threat that I and many others have been fighting against for the last 24 years*.

This, then, is the fascinating story of how one of the flowers I rescued from my forest, the stunningly beautiful Lycomormium ecuadorense, is pollinated.

The Trickster Plant

Orchids have a reputation for being highly evolved plants. The reputation stems from the numerous and curious ways they trick pollinators into helping them reproduce. For example, some orchids mimic insects, that trick males into copulating with the flowers. In the act, they pick up the orchid’s pollinia (packet of pollen), and fly off to copulate with another orchid and, in the process, spread the orchid’s genes. Others give off a scent like that of rotten meat, which attract and trick certain carrion flies into transporting their pollen to other flowers of the same species.

The Little Bee that Pollinates Over 700 species of Orchids

The bee responsible for pollinating my Lycomormium belongs to a group of bees called Euglossine. They are native to Central and South America and are responsible for pollinating over 700 species of orchids. The solitary bees are shockingly metallic green, blue or bronze, and most measure no more than 2,5 centimeters. Without them, hundreds of orchids would have a hard time reproducing, and some couldn’t reproduce at all.

The Lycomormium ecuadorense is one that depends 100% on the Euglossine bee to reproduce. The orchid, which is native to Ecuador, attracts the male bee by producing a scent that the bee uses to attract a mate. Notice I didn’t say the bee visits the flower for its nectar, which is what bees normally seek when visiting flowers. It is the scent that the male bee is after.

A Little Scent Goes a Long Ways

To collect the pollen, the bee crawls into the orchid and, with their forelegs, pass the scent on to their specialized hind legs. In the process of accessing the scent, the orchid places a packet of pollinia firmly on the bee’s back. According to experts, however, it is not the quality of the scent that makes a male attractive. Better Ilet the Encyclopedia Britannica explain it:

“The chemicals seem essential in allowing a male to successfully mate in that the odour signals to females that they are good foragers and live long enough to gather many chemical compounds found in various flowers”.

Knowing of this neat interaction, I was thrilled when one day I noticed the Lycomormium ecuadorense I rescued from my forest, was flowering. The last time it flowered had been over 5 years, and during all this time I’d check the plant for flowers, hoping to photograph and film the whole process.

To do so, weather permitting, I set up my tripod and camera in front of the orchid for a few hours on most days for about two weeks. It did take a while for the curious little bees to get used to me, but only after a day or so, they went on their scent harvesting as if I was part of the scenery. However, on most mornings, when I’d first get there. some would come within a few centimeters from my face, as if to inspect me. Once satisfied I wasn’t a threat, they pretty much left me alone (they are stingless bees, so there was nothing to be afraid of).

Days went by and one flower after another opened. And day after day, I patiently staked out the flowers with my camera. Invariably, when I left to eat lunch, or attend to my work, they’d sneak into the flower and make off with the packet of pollen! It was almost as if they didn’t want humans to find out how it works.

The last flower was about to open and, though I had a lot of wonderful shots and video recordings of bees in flight- some with pollinia on their backs, plus close up of bees inside the flowers, etc, I didn’t see or film, any actually go inside the flower and come out with the pollinia. Finally, the next-to-the last flower opened. This was it. Weeks of waiting. It was now or never.

Finally!, after all the hours of waiting, I was rewarded by seeing a bee go inside the flower, scratch around for scent for quite some time, and come out with the packet of pollinia stuck on its back!

And, if you were expecting the bee to be the picture of happiness when it emerged from the flower, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The first thing the bee did as soon as it came out was to frantically try to take the pollinia off its back with its legs! Fortunately for the orchid, the viscidium- the disk-shaped pad the pollinia is attached to, was firmly attached to the bee and, inspite of all the effort it put into removing it, that packet of pollinia stayed firmly in place.

There’s no telling when my Lycomormium will bloom again. I waited years for the last flowering. But, in the meantime, if I ever feel the need to be awed by nature’s ingeniousness, all I have to do is wander in the forest that lie only minutes from my front door.

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*More information at www.decoin.org and http://codelcoecuador.com/

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