Friday, April 19, 2013

The deceiving mirror orchid

The mirror orchid is a beautiful insect orchid that is hard to spot but worth looking for.
Finding one in Malta is a question of being at the right place at the right time. One has a better chance of finding a few specimens in Gozo and Comino. Good places to look for these flowers are garigue habitats such as is found at Pembroke and at Ta’ Ċenċ in Gozo.
The mirror orchid is found across the Mediterranean region, from Portugal to Lebanon but is absent from Cyprus and northern Italy. On the other hand, it is common in some areas such as Sicily and southern Greece.
In Maltese, the mirror orchid is known as dubbiena kaħla. Its most striking feature is its lip or labellum. This structure is made up of three highly modified petals: it has a metallic mauve centre surrounded by a yellow border and a ring of brown hair at the perimeter.
The unusual shape and colours are a successful attempt by this orchid to fool the male of a species of scoliid wasp into mistaking it for a female. Both the insect and orchid have brown hairs while the mauve spot looks like the sky being reflected on the wasp’s wing.
The flower also produces a chemical similar to pheromone that is produced by the female wasp. The deception is so complete that the male scoliid wasp lands excitedly on to the flower and attempts to mate with it.
Mimicking female insects is a strategy used by insect orchids to attract male insects. In most species, the insects mimicked are bees and wasps.
While the insect is attempting to copulate, its head of body touches the orchid’s pollen sac which breaks off and becomes attached to its head or body where it remains until it is fooled by another similar flower.
This article was published in The Times on 17 April 2013.

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