Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ode to an Orchid

I am not a poet. Nor have I ever taken a particular interest in the art form (nothing against it, just not my thing). But I was recently moved to verse witnessing pollinator visitors at our Catasetum maculatum orchid. An epiphyte, this denizen of the canopy is only sparsely distributed throughout the jungle; ours came to us as a tree-fall orphan (plucking wild orchids off their host trees is BAD!).

Part of the drama is the build-up. Plants generally go about the business of growing at their own slow pace, and orchids are no exception. A flower spike may take weeks or even months before individual buds become conspicuous. And then it can be further days or weeks of anticipation before they open. Some orchid flowers persist for weeks, others for just a day. In the case of our Catasetum, the flowering peak lasted just a few hours, but an intense time it was, marked by a frenzy of bees.

Ode to a Catasetum

Bees hover


Pulsating abdomen tiger striped

Unsated, obsessed,

hover anew…

(How do they know? What are they thinking?)

Object of desire

Sweet cinnamon licorice scent,

Glossy promise of sex.

Chemical trickery!

Pendent, maroon, all-knowing,

Mute goddess

What possessed these bees? Investigators observe that these bees are not collecting a "nectar reward", the typical reason bees visit flowers. Rather these bees, exclusively males, are collecting fragrance compounds, which they use as a sexual attractant for that "come hither" scent. Researchers further suggest that the specificity of the fragrance compounds between different bee-orchid pairings serves as natural reproductive barriers, helping explain high rates of species diversity in geographically uniform habitats like the jungle.

(Here's a short video of the bee action--orientation is sideways--ooops!---so just turn your head.)

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