5 Tricks Plants Use to Lure Pollinators

Flowering plants are dependent on pollinators for reproduction. Pollinators, such as bugs, birds, and mammals, help to transfer pollen from one flower to another. Plants utilize a number of methods to entice pollinators. These methods include producing sweet smelling fragrances and sugary nectar. While some plants deliver on the promise of sweet success, others employ trickery and bait and switch tactics to achieve pollination. The plant gets pollinated, but the insect is not rewarded with the promise of food, or in some cases romance.

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Bucket Orchids Catch Bees

Bucket orchid
Bucket orchid (coryanthes) with bee inside flower. Credit: Oxford Scientific/Photodisc/Getty Images

Coryanthes, also called bucket orchids get their name from the bucket-shaped lips of their flowers. These flowers release aromas that attract male bees. Bees use these flowers to harvest fragrances that they use to create a scent that will attract female bees. In their rush to collect fragrances from the flowers, the bees may slip on the slick surface of the flower's petal and fall into bucket lips. Inside the bucket is a thick, sticky liquid that adheres to the wings of the bee. Unable to fly, the bee crawls through a narrow opening, collecting pollen on its body as it heads toward an exit. Once its wings are dry, the bee can fly away. In an attempt to gather more fragrances, the bee may fall into the bucket of another bucket orchid plant. As the bee travels through the narrow opening of this flower, it may leave behind pollen from the previous orchid on the plant stigma. The stigma is the reproductive part of the plant that collects pollen. This relationship benefits both the bees and the bucket orchids. The bees collect the aromatic oils they need from the plant and the plant gets pollinated.

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Orchids Use Sexual Trickery to Tempt Wasps

Mirror bee orchid
Mirror bee orchid (Ophrys speculum) flowers mimic female bees. Credit: Alessandra Sarti/Getty Images

Mirror orchid flowering plant use sexual trickery to lure pollinators. Certain species of orchid have flowers that look like female wasps. Mirror orchids (Ophrys speculum) attract male scolid wasps not only by looking like female wasps, but they also produce molecules that mimic mating pheromones of the female wasp. When the male tries to copulate with the "female imposter", it picks up pollen on its body. As the wasp flies away to find a real female wasp, it may be fooled again by another orchid. When the wasp tries once again to copulate with the new flower, the pollen stuck to the wasp's body falls off and can contact the plant stigma. The stigma is the reproductive part of the plant that collects pollen. While the wasp is unsuccessful in its attempt to mate, it leaves the orchid pollinated.

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Plants Lure Flies With Smell of Death

Solomon's Lily
These are vinegar flies (right image) trapped in the calyx of the lily Arum palaestinum (Solomon's Lily). CREDIT: (Left) Dan Porges/Photo Library/Getty Images (Right) Johannes Stökl, Curr. Biol., Oct. 7, 2010

Some plants have an unusual way to lure flies. Solomon's lily flowering plants trick drosophilids (vinegar flies) into becoming pollinators by producing bad smelling odors. This particular lily emits an odor that is similar to the odor of rotting fruit produced by yeast during alcoholic fermentation. Vinegar flies are specially equipped to detect odor molecules emitted by their most common food source, yeast. By giving the illusion of the presence of yeast, the plant lures and then traps the flies inside the flower. The flies move around inside the flower trying unsuccessfully to escape, but manage to pollinate the plant. The next day, the flower opens and the flies are released.

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How the Giant Water Lily Traps Beetles

Giant Amazon Waterlily
This giant amazon waterlily can reach up to 2.5 meters in diameter and is therefore the largest and most majestic waterlily. Its flower usually only lasts 3 days, and closes at night, trapping beetles in them. Image by Ramesh Thadani/Moment Open/Getty Images

The giant Amazon water lily (Victoria amazonica) uses sweet fragrances to attract scarab beetles. These flowering plants are well suited for life on the water with large buoyant lily pads and flowers that float on water. Pollination takes place at night when the white flowers open, releasing their aromatic fragrance. Scarab beetles are attracted by the white color of the flowers and their fragrance. Beetles that may be carrying pollen from other Amazon water lilies are drawn into the female flowers, which receive the pollen transferred by the beetles. When daylight comes, the flower closes trapping the beetles inside. During the day, the flower changes from a white female flower to a pink male flower that produces pollen. As the beetles struggle for freedom, they become covered in pollen. When evening comes, the flower opens releasing the beetles. The beetles seek out more white lily flowers and the pollination process starts again.

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Some Orchids Mimic Alarm Pheromones

Eastern marsh helleborine orchid
This eastern marsh helleborine (Epipactis veratrifolia), an orchid species, has successfully lured a hoverfly of the genus Ischiodon by mimicking alarm pheromones usually emitted by aphids. MPI Chemical Ecology, Johannes Stökl

Eastern marsh helleborine species of orchid plants have a unique method of attracting hoverfly pollinators. These plants produce chemicals that mimic aphid alarm pheromones. Aphids, also called plant lice, are a food source for hoverflies and their larvae. Female hoverflies are lured to the orchid by the false aphid warning signals. They then lay their eggs in the plant flowers. Male hoverflies are also attracted to the orchids as they seek to find female hoverflies. The duplicated aphid alarm pheromones actually keep aphids away from the orchid. While the hoverflies do not find the ahpids they desire, they do benefit from the orchid nectar. The hoverfly larvae, however, die after hatching due to the lack of an aphid food source. The orchid is pollinated by the female hoverflies as they transfer pollen from one plant to another as they lay their eggs in the flowers.

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Bailey, Regina. "5 Tricks Plants Use to Lure Pollinators." ThoughtCo, Oct. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/tricks-plants-use-to-lure-pollinators-373611. Bailey, Regina. (2017, October 20). 5 Tricks Plants Use to Lure Pollinators. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tricks-plants-use-to-lure-pollinators-373611 Bailey, Regina. "5 Tricks Plants Use to Lure Pollinators." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tricks-plants-use-to-lure-pollinators-373611 (accessed November 18, 2017).