Euglossine bees carrying pollinia

Here’s a thing you might not know about the “mutualistic” interaction between plants and their pollinators. The truth is, both partners are seeking to gain a benefit from the interaction, and they often take advantage of each other. For pollinators, taking advantage can mean nectar robbing or stealing pollen without pollinating.

For plants, taking advantage means attracting pollinators without providing a reward. This is called floral deception, and orchids are masters of it. Ideally, they can attract a specialized pollinator without investing in expensive rewards like pollen and nectar. But if they want a pollinator to carry their pollen without being able to eat it, they need a pretty clever trick.

Orchid bees with pollinia

And this is what they have come up with!  It’s called a pollinium, and it’s a mass of pollen grains all in one sticky package.  When bees visit orchids* for whatever reward they’re expecting to get (be it scent, nectar, or even a mating opportunity), they step on a trigger within the corolla, and a lever swings around and delivers the pollinium to a species specific location on the bee’s body. The pollinium sticks there because of a viscidium, a special sticky place like a glue dot that adheres somewhat permanently.

So here are some photos of Euglossa bees carrying pollinia:

Euglossa
Orchid bees with pollinia
Euglossa
Orchid bees with pollinia
Euglossa
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia
Orchid bees with pollinia

*Some other plants do this too…a familiar example is the Milkweeds (Asclepias)

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6 thoughts on “Euglossine bees carrying pollinia

  1. Wonderful photos and fascinating description. Does the pollinium then detach if the bee flies in a female flower of the same species? Wonder if the bees could find a way of detaching it by rubbing themselves against a plant or getting another bee to nibble it off for them.

    • These bees are solitary, so they don’t have a nest to return to per se…the females will build individual nest cells for each egg, but the males don’t help to build or provision them. So they’re just on the look out for females. How they find them is anyone’s guess! The scent bait we use is called cineole…it smells like Vix Vaporub!

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