Friday, 18 May 2018

Sex life of orchids - and wasps

Everyone knows that orchids are rude. In Medieval times, images of their suggestive parts were banned - although some clever monks squeezed in a stray bee orchid here and there.

Orchids are never sexier than when they interact with insects, especially wasps. Despite offering no nectar or edible material, caterpillar-hunting wasps just love orchids. There is no other way to say this, but once they find their prey, they enter the flower backwards.

The first person to discover this ‘pseudo-copulation’ was a bespectacled female scientist in the 1920s, one Edith Coleman, who observed and reported on such behaviour of these misguided wasps when she was in her late 40s. Can you imagine the shuddering gasps of the conservative scientific community?

She found that the orchids use pheromones to mimic female wasps. In fact, so strong is the lure, that male wasps will even reject a female wasp to mate with an orchid. During the encounter, wasps collect pollen and perform their task for the orchid, taking it to another orchid offering more, um, action.

Coleman has been recognised with the Australian Natural History Medallion. And now, a zoologist and author Danielle Clode has written about the life of Edith Coleman in her book, ‘The Wasp and the Orchid’. There's a radio transcript, if you're interested.

It sounds like a pulp fiction crime thriller, but hopefully it will be a better read than the rather sleazy, The Orchid Hunter.

It is wonderful to see hidden figures being honoured, albeit somewhat late. Just think of Hidden Figures, Their Finest and even The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Australia has a good track record acknowledging women’s role in society. Can you remember the excitement when My Brilliant Career first came out? Good Lord. It was 1979. Well, perhaps Judy Davis might consider the role if ever they make the film.

I recently saw David Haig in Pressure, a fascinating back-room drama hailing the fortitude and wisdom of the meteorologist James Stagg during Operation Overlord. If a good writer can make weather so riveting, then why not a botanical breakthrough?

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