The Flower That Tricks Insects Into Having Sex With It

Bee orchid. Sexual deception.

I keep two plants in my home at all times. One is some leafy thing I bought years ago—I’m not really sure what it is, but it refuses to die and keeps growing taller no matter how infrequently I water it. The other is an orchid. I always like to have one around in bloom because the flowers are just gorgeous. Plus, orchids have a lot of sexual connotations, so it makes sense for me as a sex researcher to keep one around—it’s a sexy plant. However, I’ve come to develop an even greater appreciation for these flowers that goes well beyond their beauty and symbolism—it turns out that orchids actually have fascinating sex lives.

Now, flowers don’t have sex per se, of course. However, they do engage in sexual deception with insects in order to pollinate and reproduce. For example, some orchids have actually evolved to mimic the appearance and scent of female bees in order to lure male bees. When a male arrives and starts mating, the flower gets what it wants (i.e., pollination), while the bee just gets the insect equivalent of blue balls—which actually seems to be the goal. When a frustrated bee leaves, it will transfer pollen to a distant orchid, thereby creating more genetic diversity in the species. Clever little plants, right?

Orchids are utterly fascinating. To learn more about their sexual deception tactics and how this has helped orchids to survive and thrive, check out the TED-Ed video below. It’s well worth a watch!

Watch more videos on the science of sex here.

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Image Source: 123RF/Mauro Rodrigues

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