TW Viewpoint | There's A Hole In the Bucket Orchid

July 3, 2019 | Stuart Wachowicz

In the amazing catalogue of living things that fill the earth, one discovers a myriad of examples of incredible intricacy that demonstrate just how complex life-forms and their cyclescan be. The diverse and complex methods used by flowering plants to reproduce represent such an example, especially the extraordinary case of the Bucket Orchid.


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Coryanthes speciosa and Stanhopea grandiflora, the two species of “bucket orchids,” are native to the tropical areas of Mexico, Central and South America, and Trinidad. These members of the orchid family have a sophisticated means of reproduction that requires the services of specific species of “orchid bees”. Two subspecies of orchid bee are just the right size, weight, and shape to be of assistance to the bucket orchid.

Each subspecies of bucket orchid secretes a uniquely scented oily perfume, which is produced in the upper hood of the flower. The male bees fill special pouches on their hind legs with it, using the perfume to attract lady friends, and they will endure any hardship to smell their best.

The upper part of the flower, in which the plant produces its oily perfume, has a waxy surface, made more slippery by the perfume itself. As the bees go about collecting their treasure, they often slip and fall into the lower part of the flower—the “bucket”. Above the bucket is a gland that drips a watery fluid through a spigot, keeping the bucket partially filled. The orchid bee is just the right size and weight for the remarkable process that takes place during its visit to theflower. The bee, having fallen into the bottom of the bucket, would perish there in the liquid, unable to escape, were it not for a small “step” on the edge of the bucket. This step is just the right size and shape to enable the bee to pull itself out of the pool.

Alas, however, our bee would remain trapped in the flower were it not for a small tunnel located beyond the step. The tunnel, or tube, is just large enough for our species of orchid bee to pass through, and so he begins his escape. But just as he is about to exit to freedom, the tube contracts, holding the bee tightly in place. The contraction of this tube causes the secretion of a small amount of glue onto the bee’s back, but only upon a tiny, targeted area so as not to inhibit the bee’s ability to fly. Then two orange-coloured sacs containing pollen (when the flower is in its “male phase”) are pressed onto the glue. After around 45 minutes, once the glue sets, the escape tube relaxes and the bee flies free, now carrying the only pollen sacs.

Our bee, despite his harrowing adventure, still has his lady friends in mind, and is in no way deterred from visiting another bucket orchid of the same species to top up his cologne supply. Alas, during the gathering of more scent oil, he again finds himself plunged into the bucket of another orchid. Doggedly he climbs out of the pool using the convenient step and goes through the now-familiar tunnel to freedom. This time, if the orchid flower has entered its “female phase,” instead of pollen sacs awaiting him at the end of the tunnel, there is a small hook-like structure. This removes the pollen sacs from the bee’s back and causes them to open and pollinate the flower’s pistil, or female reproductive organ, beginning the process leading to the development of orchid seeds, and thus ensuring another generation of this incredible plant.

Charles Darwin recognized that there was no indication in the fossil record of the “evolution” of flowers, as he noted in an 1881 letter to botanist Sir Joseph Hooker. Darwin never did offer an explanation as to how a process like “natural selection” was sufficient to create a complex symbiotic relationship such as we see in this instance. In fact, the bucket orchid’s mechanism of pollination seems quite contrary to the norms of Darwinian theory. Processes that make survival more difficult and more prone to failure are supposed by Darwinism to be eliminated through natural selection, yet in the case of the bucket orchid, a complex mechanism that requires a partnership with a single sub-species of bee—making survival even chancier—has flourished for millennia. Add to this the need of a simultaneous development of the highly specialized characteristics in the flower and pollinator through a random process, such as described by Darwinian evolution, and we see a theory that honest scientists admit is totally improbable mathematically, without intelligent direction and design.

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