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Plantgasm - I love plants too much. By Derek Powazek.

Sex in the Garden: Tongue Orchids and their Dupes

You already know that orchids have pretty freaky sex lives. They depend on insects to carry their pollen from one flower to another, and employ a number of techniques to entice the bugs to visit. It turns out, some of those techniques are more successful than they need to be.

Take the Australian tongue orchid (Cryptostylis). The color, shape, and smell of its flower mimics a female wasp, so the male is attracted to it. Its pollinator is the Lissopimpla excelsa, or “Orchid Dupe Wasp.” (Imagine being named after your least complementary trait! Poor dupe.)

But here’s where things get interesting. In a study published in The American Naturalist in 2008, researchers found that most of these orchid-wasp pairings resulted in a “happy ending” for the pollinator. Yes, they found ejaculate in most of the flowers.

(Let’s just pause here for a moment to think about people collecting wasp spooge from orchids for science. Great job.)

The study claims to be “the first conclusive evidence of insect ejaculation in response to floral stimuli.” And they proved that these orchids have a far higher pollination rate than other orchids because of it.

This revelation led to some fascinating questions. If Dupe wasps are wasting all their valuable sperm in flowers, doesn’t that mean the female Dupes are left wanting? And wouldn’t that lead to an inevitable decline in the wasp population? And if these wasps are the only pollinators for the Cryptostylis orchids, how can they survive? Thankfully, nature always finds a way.

It turns out the Dupe wasps are haplodiploids. That means that, in addition to mating the old fashioned way, the females can also produce offspring all by themselves. When they do, those offspring are always male. So the orchids lure the male Dupes away, and the female Dupes just make more. Nature is clever, if not always kind.

Want more Sex in the Garden? Check out these fine posts from my fellow Bay Area Plant Bloggers, who all have sex on the brain today.

Photo from the study, copyright Esther Beaton.

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4 Responses

Very timely — My friend JUST asked me moments ago, “Can’t you just get a job doing something with botany?” Maybe collecting wasp jizz is a career track I should look into…..Thanks for the tip!

Posted by phyte club katie on 15 August 2011 @ 3pm

Fascinating stuff! I’ll never look at these flowers the same way ever ever again. The wasp sure does look super happy in that photo. And I literally did “LOL” at Katie’s response above. This leads me to wonder, how does one exactly start in the career path of wasp jizz collection? What are the qualifications? And Is there a wasp sperm bank for wasp sperm storage?

Posted by Rob on 15 August 2011 @ 3pm

this is awesome! i love all of our posts.. we need to do this again for another topic.. maybe more specific. love the “happy endings”!

Posted by dirty girl gardening on 16 August 2011 @ 8am

This just makes me blissfully happy…I think I need a cigarette ;)
People always look at me suspiciously when I say that gardening and plants is all about sex and death and we have this Victorian sensibility about pretty things. How about all of it? It’s fun when science can find evidence for something that is so elegantly other than our traditional human notions about it.

Posted by Kristin Landfield on 24 August 2011 @ 11am


Plantgasm is where Derek Powazek chronicles his botanical antics and misadventures. More.