How Deceptive Can an Orchid Be?

So bees have flourished, along with the orchids they unwittingly serve, and they have adapted to changing conditions quite well, a fact that would please Darwin immensely. Brendan Borrell of the University of California, Berkeley, spent three years collecting bees all over Costa Rica and Panama and found that orchid bees are exceptionally well equipped to suck up the thick nectar from inside an orchid.

Some have very long tongues, which gives them access that would be denied to other bees with shorter tongues.

It takes awhile, like sucking up juice with a straw from a water melon. But it's worth the time, Borrell reported. This bee dines on nectar that is up to 10 times the quantity of nectar from other flowers serviced by bees.

So not only do orchids support Darwin's conclusions. So do the bees. Variety is not just the spice of life, it is also the key to survival. And it is the reason orchids are considered by many scientists to be the most highly evolved flowering plants on Earth.

In her delightful book, "The Orchid Thief," Susan Orlean describes some of the more bizarre orchids.

"One species looks like a German shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out," Orlean writes. "One species looks like an onion. One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like a monkey," and so on.

Though They Appear Fragile, Orchids Are Quite Resilient

And they don't all smell like the purple beauty a lad might pin on his prom date. One, according to Orlean, smells like rotting meat, and insects like that. Others smell like chocolate, or other flowers that insects like to visit.

Although many appear fragile, they are surprisingly resilient, and some experts think an orchid plant could live forever, given the right circumstances. But alas, like so many other plants and animals, the orchid's world is shrinking and growing less hospitable.

Borneo's rain forests are home to at least 2,500 orchid species, but they are threatened by forest fires, illegal logging, and poachers, and that includes some very wealthy orchid lovers around the world who will stop at nothing to add to their collections. One recent study indicates that the forests, and the orchids within them, could vanish within a few years.

And in Africa, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, orchids in the highlands of Tanzania are being "virtually strip-mined" because they are prized for a sort of vegetarian sausage.

Although orchids are protected from poaching by international conventions, business is booming. Orlean estimates that international trade in orchids brings in $10 billion a year.

Some species undoubtedly will be lost in the years ahead. But as Darwin suggested so long ago, these are very clever plants. They will probably be around long after we are gone.

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