Next year, much of the writing hereabouts will dally under the astrological sign of Complexity. And since complexity is inextricably linked to evolution (or is it the other way around?), poking Darwinism with a stick will be at times regretfully 😉 necessitated. So… why not start now?
This raspberry-flavored whimsy comes adapted from The Sex Life of Flowers (ch. 5, The ‘unacceptable’ face of evolution) by way of Charles Bowden’s novel Blood Orchid.
They will do anything to reproduce. And they will use the needs of others, the deep appetites they see in all our faces, they will exploit these things to further their own ends. They will take over our ways of loving, they will seize upon our sense of property. They will ruthlessly read our diaries, our secret thoughts, and then make us slaves to our own obsessions.
Perhaps no clearer example exists than the tactics of the hammer orchid (Drakaea fitzgeraldii) and its scheme to seduce one particular type of wasp (of the family Thynnidae). Thynnids fall into the trap once they gaze upon the labellum of a hammer orchid.
Female Thynnids prosper by parasitizing the larvae of Scarabacid beetles, and the particular beetles favored as prey live by being root parasites. To find them, the females have to dig and since they spent their time digging, they lost the ability to fly. Indeed, they have lost their wings, a sacrifice which makes it easier for the females to tunnel under the earth. The hammer orchid lives high above them in the trees but somehow has become conscious of their strange ways.
Since the female Thynnids cannot fly, they cannot search the forest above them for food. This problem they solve by sucking fluids from the beetles that are their victims. That leaves the great subject of mating. Most wasps of this type have a culture in which the males are the active parties in mating. Usually, a female just plants herself in an easily reached location, releases a pheromone, and lets time solve her problem. Possibly, it is an intoxicating situation.
Usually, the mating process proceeds rather simply. The female sits, releases the pheromone into the air, and business proceeds. For copulation to occur the male wasp must be triggered by scent, by sight, and by touch. So the pretty and winged male flies a patrol, he stumbles upon the inviting scent drifting through the air and follows it. The female, to make it all so easy, has climbed up a ways off the ground on, say, a grass stem. Now the male approaches, the female begins to move her jaws in expectation. The male descends, grabs her with his legs. And off they go, like a military aircraft with a deadly missile slung underneath.
She does not fear that she will fall. She fastens her jaws on the male’s neck, and there she rides secure. They mate while in flight, a seemingly needless risk that long puzzled scientists. Why is this ride necessary? True, there are a lot of bees and butterflies and whatnot that fornicate in the air. But this species of wasp could have accomplished the venture without leaving the good and solid earth. So why are they behaving this way? And what – the impossible question we are trained never to ask – do the hammer orchids make of it all? For we know, and we insist, the orchids cannot think. Or see. Or in any way we will ever admit, know. And they are up there in the trees, clinging while the male flies and fucks with the female down below.
The male and female wasp do not hurry, no, not at all. They remain locked together in fornication for hours. And they do other things. The female for the first time in her life is off the ground, in flight. The tunnel-digging predator now kisses the sky. She does not waste this rare opportunity. The male hauls her from flower to flower and here they both feed, continuing to fuck all the while. For the first and last time during her time on this earth, the female tastes nectar.
While the male and female wasp are slurping up nectar and fornicating, the male, we think, is also scoping out the forest floor. Sex, we believe, does not distract him from this great task. He is looking for a good place to drop the female later, after the bash, a piece of ground rich in beetles where his kind can thrive, where his descendants will prosper. Just how he does this we do not understand. But we feel confident that however strange it may seem, he is actually the explorer of his world, the Columbus finding the new country and the new future. And the hammer orchid that cannot watch, watches; that cannot see, sees; that cannot know, …
We are in Australia, the wasps are mating just below and orchids, particularly hammer orchids (Drakaea) and elbow orchids (Spiculaea), seem to notice. The hammer orchids, for example, have a strange labellum – that tonguelike projection in the middle of the flower. It looks… just like a small, fat, wingless female version of the Thynnid wasp. The imitation is damn near perfect – shiny head, round, faintly hairy body, ass tilted up a bit into the air. The scent also – that delicious pheromone the female releases – is copied and wafts off into the air from the hammer orchid. It is floating across the forest, it is sexually inviting, perhaps maddening, and the orchid, which cannot possibly know, now it hears the rush of wings approaching it, though of course it cannot possibly hear either.
The fake female wasp rides on the end of a little hinged arm that sticks up from the flower of the hammer orchid. She bobs up and down in the wind, she looks so alive and of course, there is that scent. The male descends — ah, the moment is at hand that evolution has been waiting for, the moment that so stimulated that crabby old churchman Charlie Darwin as he battled his illnesses and fears in his dark English study — grabs the female impersonator, wrenches to take off into his mating flight. And then the hammer comes down, a thing delicately called the column, and on its end are stigma and polinia. The male wasp is already trying to probe that uplifted ass with his genitals when — wham! the hammer hits, and suddenly the male senses this is not a real female and he departs. It has taken less than a second. And glued to his back are the reproductive cells of the orchid. There are four species of hammer orchids. Each attracts a specific species of Thynnid wasp. And they do this by mimicking a female that spends all of her life tunneling in the forest floor far below. Except, of course, for her few hours of flying, fucking, nectar slurping, and fun.
The system of the hammer orchid usually fails. How could it be otherwise? If perfect, all the wasps would mate with fake females and soon there might be no real wasps to attract. The fake females, well, they are just not the real thing. No orchid can compete with a real lusty Thynnid female, not at all. Males will hardly visit the flowers when living females are out and about. The scent is just not like a whiff of the real thing. But there is a saving fact, a tiny detail that makes the sex life of the hammer orchid possible. Each spring, the males show up a couple of weeks before the females. And the hammer orchid knows this — no! no! that can’t be right, these damn things can’t really know. During this interlude, the hammer orchid seduces male Thynnids, and they land, and they fuck the false female, and the hammer falls. It has been going on for…