“The person who first records the whole pollination event will be very lucky indeed.” So wrote Bob Bates (South Australia’s Native Orchids, 2011). He was referring to the pollination event for Bearded Greenhoods in the genus Plumatichilos. As with many orchids there has always been a lot of conjecture about the pollination strategy involved so it is good to finally have photographic evidence of a previously unknown pollinator.
For several years now Rudie Kuiter, Mitchell Findlater-Smith and Rober Lindhe have been researching the relationship between orchids and insects, spending much time in the field observing and photographing the insects. Finally they have managed to obtain a photograph of a pollinator but it was not one of their photographs. Instead it was Neil Blair who took the photograph and observed a dagger fly pollinating a Plumatichilos. The male of these fascinating insects catches another insect and offers it for a nuptial gift to a female in order to be accepted as a mate. The photographs are amazing. It’s worth reading the paper Pollination of the Bearded Greenhoods (Orchidaceae) by Dagger Flies (Diptera: Empididae) just to see the pictures.
Continuing last week’s blog, here is the completion of Rudie Kuiter’s Introducion, Orchid Pollinators of Victoria. In this section he discusses some factors of hybridisation and the value of regular observation by local people interested in orchids.
Lissopimpla excelsa is the pollinator of all members of Cryptostylis, but hybrids are not known, even when sympatric, thus a molecular mechanism is in place that prevents cross-fertilisation. Hybrids in other orchid genera do occur and these usually are amongst closely related species. Several congeneric orchids attract the same male pollinator species, thus would be emitting the same kairomones, the scent that is a mimic of the female’s sex-pheromones, but normally these orchids are allopatric or have different habitat preferences. The land clearing, frequent fires, changes of watercourses, gold-diggings are amongst many unnatural human habitat interference of recent times. Historically in undisturbed natural habitats sibling orchid species that attracted the same male insect were not sympatric, not flowering at the same time or were in close vicinity to each other. In disturbed sites the situation has changed, as closely related species may have become sympatric and hybridisation take place. Spider-orchids that attract thyniid wasps with kairomones normally target a certain local species, but many allopatric species are know to share the same pollinator and readily hybridise where they became sympatric. In Pterostylis greenhoods the known hybrids are also caused when different species attract the same pollinators.
We still have much to learn to fully understand how adaptable the orchids are, the role insects play and how to interpret what we see. Orchids are finely tuned to their world and can change and adapt in ways that most people seem to underestimate. I requires observations of the same plants over many seasons to get a good understanding of their variability and adaptability. Unusual forms often show after a drought or fire may look like a new species, but soon change back to typical or normal within a few good seasons or after regeneration. It is usually the local people taking an interest that see the changes in the same plants over time that dispute what the ‘on-the-fly’ taxonomist come up with.
Creatures evolved as part of an endless combination of life-forms, ranging from microscopic to the tallest tree, that together form an ecosystem in which all organisms depend on each other. The climate, weather and other factors changes the environment constantly that influence the members differently, dome doing better than others, but it collectively maintains a balance. Natural events such as a major fire or flood may benefit environments in areas as part of seemingly long cycles, but they are very short in evolutionary terms. Unnatural man-made fires are very destructive as these are conducted much too frequently, wrong time of the year, and in the wrong place. Not obvious, but also very detrimental is the use of insecticides that seems to effect the Diptera members the most. Many of the important pollinators such as the fungus-gnats have gone locally extinct and most of the Pterostylis depend on them. To work with the pollinators it is essential to have a good understand of the life-cycles of the insects involved and watch the flowers in the wild. After witnessing Pollinator behaviours of the fungus-gnat on Pterostylis nutans countless times, the principal pollinator is easily recognised with other species. Unfortunately few good areas to find orchids and learn about their pollinators are left. Many are now rare and measures taken to protect them usually focuses on just a species. To be effective their habitat area and surrounding needs to be cared for, letting the natives grow and have the natural canopy reform. At least, habitats should be protected from further disturbances, especially by badly informed governmental environment departments with their fires.
Note This book is solely based on first-hand observations on the orchid-pollinators in the wild. Descriptions and comments are from many hours of watching each species over multiple seasons.
Apart from Orchid Pollinators of Victoria, Rudie Kuiter has produced several Victorian orchid books. If you are interested in purchasing any please contact us.
This week’s blog, Part One of Two Parts, is quoted directly from the introductory chapter (Pages 2&3) Orchid Pollinators of Victoria 4th Edition, 2016, Rudie Kuiter. Over the years of photographing orchids and their pollinators, Rudie and his team have been discovering much of the hidden world of orchid pollinators. In this first section he highlights the fallacy of the “one orchid-one pollinator” as well as touching briefly on the vast difference between the insects and their role in the ecosystem.
Amongst flowering plants, orchids have evolved in their own special reproductive ways. Their pollen is massed as waxy packages, pollinia, unlike like (sic) other flowers that produce masses of fine pollen grains that mostly go astray. The pollinia are relatively heavy and the usually small creatures need to be strong fliers for cross pollination (see image below). Orchids evolved with amazing strategies to attract specific carriers in order to transfer pollen between flowers of their species only, and in this way eliminating the need to produce great quantities. Various insects, many moths, bees and even birds have been documented as pollinators of orchids around the world (v.d. Cingel, 2001). A number of uniquely different examples of orchids attracting insects for their pollination evolved in Australia, especially in the more temperate southern zones originating from Gondwana times. With very few exceptions the Victorian orchids are terrestrial, ground-dwellers, that rely on small insects such as fungus-gnats, native bees, wasps, ants and many attract only the males by sexual deception. In the case no pollinators visits, many species may self-pollinate as a back up.
When taking an interest in orchids it seems difficult enough to identify some species. Usually one looks and admires the amazing flowers that may resemble an insect and can be difficult to recognise as a flower at first. An insect on a flower may be thought of something that spoils a picture – until taking an interest in the visitor!
I first learned about the orchid pollinators in Orchids of South Australia by Bates & Weber, 1990, an excellent book by today’s standard, but few were seen over the years by just being there at the right time when photographing orchids. During preparation of the book on Caladenia spider-orchids, certain issues developed from questionable statements made in scientific papers about wasp-pollinators. Of particular concern was about the one-to-one relationship – how only one wasp-species would be involved with only one spider-orchid species – and suggesting populations that were thought to represent the same species comprised different taxa if not pollinated by the same wasp-species. A very different story emerged when monitoring the local spider-orchid populations to find the answers and it became clear that there was much more to it. A site in Wonthaggi with a very large colony of Caladenia dilatata proved to be perfect for this study and also to photograph pollinators as it produces flowers for about four months. It was found that a local wasp-pollinator species typically flies for a little over one month, thus this need to be investigated further. Scientific publications on wasp-pollinators were generally based on short-term experiments, and usually employing baiting methods – moving flowers and often taking them to different sites. Responses included unnatural behaviour or attracting sibling wasps at a non-local site. It is certainly true that a particular flower may attract only one species of wasp a t a locality and a certain time in the season, but this reflects a very small part of the picture. It can be different in the long-term, at certain localities or with a season.
The main study site was in coastal dunes, where in a very large population of Caladenia dilatata produced flowers for over four months from September, and under favourable Summer-conditions into January. At least three congeneric (belonging to the same genus) thynniid wasps species were involved in this population. The flying times were up to about 6 weeks for each wasp species, that were separated or slightly overlapping. The flowering times in other populations of C. dilatata in Wonthaggi and Wilsons Promontory were usually about one month in each, and at the corresponding times to the study site the wasps visiting were the same species. A close sibling C. parva in the Wonthaggi heathland habitats and early flowering C. dilatata were pollinated by the same species, but the later flowering C. tentaculata by a thynniid wasp of the different genus.
Whilst a flower may attract only one wasp species, the kairomones (chemical omitted by the orchid to attract a pollinator) of a species may vary between flowers within in a population or when allopatric (growing in different geographical regions), just like colour or morphology. Variations maybe in relation to locality, weather conditions, or ground chemistry and available pollinator. Pollinators may evolve over time, but adaptions usually require many seasons and this would vary with location. The observations made over several seasons suggest that more than one congeneric insect is involved in pollination depending on local or seasonal conditions, especially after a long drought. Chiloglottis gunnii populations in Langwarrin were checked for pollinators since a decade-long drought and no action was seen for many seasons. When wasps finally made an appearance they comprised different taxa of Neozeleboria the first season, but only one became the common and principal pollinator the following seasons. Thynniid wasps are very localised as females lack wings and rely on the males to carry them around during copulation and to provide food. It limits their travelling and their homing range may comprise just a few hundred metres. Thynniid wasp are very vulnerable in small reserves isolated by land-clearing, and certain species have gone locally extinct due to conducting burns. Insects form a crucial and fundamental part of an ecosystem, but their importance is never considered in the planned burning, showing a complete lack of understanding by people in charge. So little is known of ecosystem’s foundations, but controlled burning continues – ruining precious habitats. Orchid species failing to produce seed pods is an indication that pollinators were absent, probably gone locally extinct. Orchid species that have a sexual association with thynniid wasp pollinators are localised and usually have geographically variable flowers. The situation is different with Cryptostylis spp. And their pollinating male wasp Lissopimpla excelsa, as females are a strong flyers. The flowers of Cryptostylis are geographically uniform in each species and the wasp is widespread. Both sexes are very distinctive in colour that show no variation. They are active over Spring and Summer and are great travellers.
Part Two of the November competition consisted of photographs of insects on orchids. There was quite a range of insects but the winner was a draw between Cyrtostylis robusta (Winter Gnat Orchid) with an ant and Pterostylis curta (Blunt Greenhood) with a midge fly; both taken by Doug Castle.
With today’s technology it is not only easier to take crisp images but fine details can be seen particularly when enlarging the image. Hence when the pictures are enlarged it is possible to see hairs on the ant and feathered antennae on the midge fly.
With identifying orchids, it is often the detail that is important. Both of these orchids are distinctive and can be readily identified but it is good to examine why this is the case.
With the greenhood, there is enough detail to see that the dorsal sepal and lateral petals have united to form a galea, ie hood, and that the lateral sepals are semi-fused and erect resulting in lateral orifices (side gap) between the two structures. These are some of the features that separate Pterostylis* from the other greenhoods such as Diplodium, Speculantha and Taurantha. This becomes apparent when browsing through the greenhood photographs, pages 286 to 339, in Jones “A Complete Guide to Native Orchids of Australia”. Having established that the plant is a Pterostylis, the twisted labellum is diagnostic of a P.curta as it is the only one that is described with a twisted labellum. Although not all the identifying features are present, enough information is available in this picture for identification.
In contrast the photograph of the Cyrtostylis robusta only has sufficient data to confidently identify it as a Cyrtostylis species, having a distinctive labellum that is larger than the lateral sepals and petals. In South Australia there are only two species and according to Bates (2011), the distinguishing features between the two
appear to be the leaf, the bud and the labellum. In this picture, the angle of the image does not give a clear view of the labellum (it could possibly be damaged) and of course there is no bud or leaf. It is possible that the pale edges of the dorsal sepal may give a clue to species identification as C. reniformis has mainly darker buds than C. robusta. Obviously Doug was able to identify it from his observations of the other features not present in this photograph.
In summary, one image is not always sufficient for identification. As was discussed on the night, to confirm identification, orchids should always be photographed from more than one angle, including pictures of other parts of the plant.
*In South Australia, Pterostylis foliata is a possible exception as it has no obvious lateral orifice.
Jones, D.L., T. Hopley, S.M. Duffy, K.J. Richards, M.A. Clements & X. Zhang (2006) Australian orchid genera. An information and identification system. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood, Vic.
Bates, R.J. (2011) South Australia’s Native Orchids. DVD-ROM. Native Orchid Society of South Australia Inc.: Adelaide.
Jones, D.L. (2006) A complete guide to native orchids of Australia, including the island territories. New Holland Publishers: Sydney.