60-Second Science

Sneaky Orchid Drives Wasps Wild

A study in the journal Current Biology finds that an orchid mimics the alarm chemical signal of bees to attract the bees' predatory wasps, all to get the wasps to pollinate the orchids. Adam Hinterthuer reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Orchids are botany's great mimics, all in the service of getting pollinated. Some have evolved to resemble female wasps to attract males. Others produce odors that smell like potential mates or like more attractive flowers. Now a study published in the journal Current Biology adds another form of floral fabrication to this list: an orchid that releases the exact same chemical compound that honeybees use to alert their hive mates.

Why? Because the bees are the favorite food of the larvae of Vespa hornets. And when the orchid Dendrobium sinense sends out these false alarms, the hornets pounce on the petals, thinking they’ll bring a bee dinner home to the kids. Instead they become unwitting pollinators.

Researchers were intrigued by the hornets’ mysterious violent attacks on the orchids. They were able to isolate the pheromone the flower uses to drive the hornets wild. The finding might find use in agriculture. The Vespa hornet is a big pest for commercial beekeepers. This research could help develop environmentally friendly, species-specific traps to control the Vespa population, and take the sting out of these problematic pollinators.

—Adam Hinterthuer

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