Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Orchids Work


Notable Types of Orchids
In order to pollinate, the Ophrys apifera, aka the “prostitute orchid,” copies the scent and appearance of the naughty bits of female bees to attract males ones.
In order to pollinate, the Ophrys apifera, aka the “prostitute orchid,” copies the scent and appearance of the naughty bits of female bees to attract males ones.
Lars Hallstrom/age fotostock/Getty Images

I mentioned earlier that orchids are pretty smart, as flowers go. Although they probably won't ever learn advanced calculus or overtake man as rulers of the world, they have evolved in some pretty cool ways to ensure that they continue to spread and grow. You probably know that flowering plants rely on pollination by insects to spread their genetic material. Most plants offer sweet, sweet nectar as bait, as do some types of orchids. Other varieties, however, have developed their own means for luring pollen-spreading insects. Here are a few cool examples of super sneaky orchids:

Bulbophyllum beccarii: This is a classic case of an orchid that knows its audience. Since its pollinators are flies and carrion beetles, it caters to their preferences by stinking to high heaven in order to attract them. In fact, one writer likened it to "a herd of dead elephants" [source: Horak]. Probably not the best type to give at a housewarming party.

Ophrys apifera: Also known as "prostitute orchid" or "bee orchid," this European version effectively copies the scent and appearance of the naughty bits of female bees to attract males. Then, once the bad boy bee attempts a tryst, the flower transfers pollen sacs to his back, which he distributes when he flies off in search of a cold shower or a more willing mate [sources: Pollan, Horak]. For the record, these orchids don't discriminate against other types of insects. The Ophrys insectifera (or "fly orchid") is perfectly happy to be a tease to flies around Europe too [source: Thornes].

Dendrobium sinese: Ever wondered what a frightened bee smells like? If so, grab one of these orchids and sniff away to find out. Hornets are the pollinator of choice for these Chinese beauties, and hornets enjoy nothing more than a nice bee buffet. So by smelling like scaredy-cat bees, these orchids actually attract hornets in search of a bee-flavored meal [source: Owen].

Vanilla planifolia: Yep, you read that right. The stuff of culinary tastiness is actually harvested from the vanilla plant, which is – drumroll please – a type of orchid! Boggles the mind, right? The flavor doesn't come from the bloom, however. Vanilla plants feature pods (known interchangeably as beans), which when cracked open reveal thousands of teeny black seeds. To ensure enough vanilla beans to meet worldwide demand, they have to be hand-pollinated [source: Spiegel]. See, I told you orchids are smart. This one has the humans doing all the work for it!


More to Explore