The Fairy-Land of Science eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 185 pages of information about The Fairy-Land of Science.

Now we come lastly to the Orchis flower.  Mr. Darwin has written a whole book on the many curious and wonderful ways in which orchids tempt bees and other insects to fertilize them.  We can only take the simplest, but I think you will say that even this blossom is more like a conjuror’s box than you would have supposed it possible that a flower could be.

Let us examine it closely.  It has sic deep-red covering leaves, Fig. 62, three belonging to the calyx or outer cup, and three belonging to the corolla or crown of the flower; but all six are coloured alike, except that the large on in front, called the “lip”, has spots and lines upon it which will suggest to you at once that they point to the honey.

But where are the anthers, and where is the stigma?  Look just under the arch made by those three bending flower-leaves, and there you will see two small slits, and in these some little club-shaped bodies, which you can pick out with the point of a needle.  One of these enlarged is shown.  It is composed of sticky grains of pollen held together by fine threads on the top of a thin stalk; and at the bottom of the stalk there is a little round body.  This is all that you will find to represent the stamens of the flower.  When these masses of pollen, or pollinia as they are called, are within the flower, the knob at the bottom is covered by a little lid, shutting them in like the lid of a box, and just below this lid you will see two yellowish lumps, which are very sticky.  These are the top of the stigma, and they are just above the seed-vessel, which you can see in the lowest flower in the picture.

Now let us see how this flower gives up its pollen.  When a bee comes to look for honey in the orchis, she alights on the lip, and guided by the lines makes straight for the opening just in front of the stigmas.  Putting her head into this opening she pushes down into the spur, where by biting the inside skin she gets some juicy sap.  Notice that she has to bite, which takes time.

You will see at once that she must touch the stigmas in going in, and so give them any pollen she has on her head. but she also touches the little lid and it flies instantly open, bringing the glands at the end of the pollen-masses against her head.  These glands are moist and sticky, and while she is gnawing the inside of the spur they dry a little and cling to her head and she brings them out with her.  Darwin once caught a bee with as many as sixteen of these pollen-masses clinging to her head.

But if the bee went into the next flower with these pollinia sticking upright, she would simply put them into the same slits in the next flower, she would not touch them against the stigma.  Nature, however, has provided against this.  As the bee flies along, the glands sticking to its head dry more and more, and as they dry they curl up and drag the pollen-masses down, so that instead of standing upright, as in 1, Fig. 63, they point forwards, as in 2.

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The Fairy-Land of Science from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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