Ophrys: Bee Costumes

Now, let’s really kick off the plant costume series with an easy one that you may have seen before- bee costumes. The bee form is a staple of Halloween costumes for all ages. There are adorable and rotund onesies complete with antennae’d hoodies for the 18 months and under set. At the other end of the spectrum there are ‘sexy’ bee costumes that get much tighter, leave little room for stripes and would otherwise lead one to believe Halloween is celebrated in July not October. Finally, let’s not forget this gem of a throwback from Blind Melon*:

Plants also dress up as bees as well. While the orchid genus Orphys may sound more like a Mardi Gras krewe, their specialty is their bee costumes. Take another look at some of these images. They’re not flowers with a bee rooting around for nectar in the middle- it’s just the flower. Don’t feel too bad if you were fooled, Orphys species fool actual bees too. You see, this is what a sexy bee costume looks like if you were designing it for a bee.

Orphys apifera by Hans Hillewaert via Wikipedia

Ophrys bomybliflora by Orchi via Wikipedia

Orphys fusca by Orchi via Wikipedia

Why would a plant wear a sexy bee costume? To attract unsuspecting male bees over to shake up some pollen. The technical term for this pollination strategy is pseudocopulation. If you haven’t connected the dots yet, the male bees have sex or try to have sex with the bee form of the flower becoming covered in flower pollen in the process. The frustrated bees can then move on to another orchid bearing an attractive female bee form. This transfers the pollen from the first orchid to the second thereby allowing sexual reproduction for the plants from the fake experience of the bees. Of course, the bees are not as likely to be fooled twice (shame on them, right?) so the actual pollination rate via this mechanism is estimated to be ~10%. The orchid makes up for this by producing about 12,000 tiny seeds.

Disguises are not limited to visual cues in the plant kingdom. In another devious trick, the orchids employ their extensive repertoire of biochemical tools to produce chemicals that mimic the smell of female bees. These alkene molecules released by the plant closely match the species-specific pheromones for their bee pollinators. It may look like a bee and smell like a bee, but it’s still just a flower.


*What do you know, another plant reference.

References and Links:








2 thoughts on “Ophrys: Bee Costumes

  1. Pingback: Dracula (Orchids) | New Under The Sun Blog

  2. Pingback: October Series: Plant Costumes | New Under The Sun Blog

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