With orchids and carnivorous plants abloom in Tasmania’s forests, it’s a risky time of year for insects

This time of year, many of the state’s orchids and carnivorous plants are out in full force. There are more than 1,700 species of orchids in Australia, including more than 200 in Tasmania, and about 250 flesh-eating plants out of an estimated 800 species worldwide.

Bird orchids

“What’s special about orchids is that they found a mechanism to have really efficient pollination,” Dr Nargar, who leads the orchid research program at the Australian Tropical Herbarium, said. “They bundle up the pollen in packages and the packages have a little bit of a glue on them so that they can attach a whole package to the pollinator.” If they are going to successfully spread their genetics, which is what pollen does, they need to ensure the pollinator visits another flower of the same species quickly.

Some Australian orchids lure insects to pollinate them in a traditional way by making nectar for insects to drink. Other orchids are far more deceptive, like bird orchids.

Bird orchids up their chances by using a specific wasp species. Male wasps buzzing around the forest, looking for an eligible female among the leaf litter, often use her scent to discover her. Unfortunately for the male, the bird orchids have evolved to produce just that scent. Not only that, but they also have a series of raised dark bumps on their petals that look like a female wasp.

The male will land to try to mate with the flower; in the frenzy the packet of pollen will get fixed to the wasp. He then moves on, continuing his search for a mate, but if his next lover is another orchid, it will be the flower which has spread its genetics, not him.

sundew plant

Australia’s poor soils have set the scene for carnivorous plants to evolve multiple times on our ancient continent, because plants that can get their nutrients from prey have an advantage in these environments. In Tasmania there are two genre, or groups, of these plants: the Utricularia, better known as bladderworts and the Drosera, otherwise known as sundews. Sundews have sticky tentacles can wrap around the insects that come into contact with them. Then glands on the surface of the leaf release digestive enzymes that break down the prey so that the plant can then absorb the nutrients.

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