Have you ever looked at a beautiful flowering orchid and wondered whether orchids produce nectar, or whether they are a plant that lures insects in via some other means? You wouldn’t be alone if so.
Most orchids do produce nectar, and indeed, it’s thought that around two-thirds of this amazing family make nectar and pollen to encourage insects to come and pollinate their flowers. As the insect drinks the nectar, it picks up pollen that can be used to fertilize another orchid.
In this article, we’ll explore why orchids make nectar, and what the plants that don’t produce it do instead. All orchids need to be pollinated, so this will help you understand how they ensure that this happens.
How Do Orchids Use Nectar?
As stated above, many members of the orchid family produce nectar as a means of luring insects that can carry their pollen from flower to flower.
For plants that live in dense rainforests where there is little wind, it’s important to have a reliable means of transporting their pollen around, and orchids generally depend upon insects for this purpose.
To get the insect to land on the flower, the plant produces sweet nectar that serves as food for the insect. This works in the following way:
- The plant produces nectar, along with brightly colored flowers to advertise that the nectar is available
- The insect lands to drink the nectar and crawls into the flower
- The insect brushes up against the pollen within the flower as it drinks, and some pollen is collected on its body
- The insect finishes drinking and then flies away to land on another flower with more nectar
- The insect crawls inside the second flower and some of the pollen on its body brushes off onto the second flower
- The second flower is fertilized with pollen from the first, and is then able to create seeds and reproduce
This pattern means that the orchid can spread its pollen and its genetic information around the local area, despite being fixed in one place. The insect is rewarded with food and therefore will keep foraging and passing the pollen between the flowers. This is one of the most tried and tested methods of reproduction that plants use.
It’s also worth noting that not every insect can collect nectar from every kind of orchid. Some orchids have designed their nectar system so that only one kind of insect can access it. This has led to a partnership where the insect feeds mostly on that plant – meaning it is less likely to take the pollen to another, incompatible flower and waste it.
How Else Do Orchids Attract Insects?
Not all orchids produce nectar, and some spread their pollen through other means, with some of them being surprisingly creative! For example, one orchid produces a flower that looks like the female of a solitary species of bee. When the male spots the flower, it lands, tries to mate, and gets covered in pollen.
Other orchids do this too. For example, the hammer orchid replicates the appearance and even the scent of a female wasp. When the male wasp attempts to mate with the flower, the flower is tipped by the male’s weight and this knocks the male into the flower’s stigma, where pollen is deposited.
Some orchids offer the appearance of nectar but do not produce any. They mimic other nearby plants that insects feed on so that the insect will land on them and collect their pollen while it looks for nectar. They do not have to expend the energy to actually produce the nectar, however, and they still get pollinated.
Bucket orchids have another method. They attract male bees with a sweet oil that the bees use in their courtship rituals. The surface where this oil gathers is slippery, and many bees fall into the “bucket.” To escape, they have to crawl through a narrow trap, where the pollen is brushed onto their backs. They then do this at another flower, depositing the pollen on the orchid’s stigma.
Why Don’t All Orchids Produce Nectar?
It might seem that nectar is a simpler solution than the elaborate ruses described above, but bear in mind that nectar is costly to produce and the plant has to expend its resources both making it and advertising it. If the plant can get the same services (pollen pickup and delivery) for free, it will happily do so.
This saves energy and allows the plant to grow more efficiently. It doesn’t need to create sugars for the insects, and it still gets its pollen distributed. Some orchids, therefore, make no nectar at all.
What Insects Pollinate Orchids?
A variety of insects will come to orchids to pollinate them, and many orchids have partnered with a specific insect, catering almost exclusively to their tastes (like the one which creates oil for bees). The list is extensive, but orchids may be pollinated by bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, ants, and all manner of other insects.
Some orchids are even pollinated by birds, such as the hummingbird, which can hover in front of the plant while it sips the nectar. Pollen is usually delivered to the bird’s head as it drinks. Although birds only became pollinates relatively recently when compared to insects, it’s thought that about 3 percent of orchids are bird-pollinated.
That means that hundreds of orchids are relying on hummingbirds to spread their pollen throughout the local area. Orchids that have no scent are more likely to be pollinated by birds, although they do usually have bright, eye-catching petals.
Most orchids do have nectar, yes. They will produce this sticky, sweet substance as a means of luring in birds and insects to spread their pollen from flower to flower, ensuring the continuation of the species. Some kinds of orchids use other methods of attracting pollinators, and this may include trickery and even trapping the insect.