Scientists have discovered why orchids are one of the most successful groups of flowering plants — it is all down to their relationships with the bees that pollinate them and the fungi that nourish them. The study, published February 1 in the American Naturalist, is the culmination of a ten-year research project in South Africa involving researchers from Imperial College London, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and other international institutions.
The orchid family is one of the largest groups of flowering plants, with over 22,000 species worldwide. New research suggests that there is such a huge range of species because orchids are highly adaptable and individual species can interact with bees, and other pollinators, in different ways.
For example, when orchids Pterygodium pentherianum and Pterygodium schelpei live side by side, Pterygodium pentherianum puts its pollen on the bee’s front legs, whereas Pterygodium schelpei puts it on the bee’s abdomen, as in the photo above. This means that one bee can carry pollen from two distinct species without mixing it.
The study also shows how orchids are able to live harmoniously together, with different species working in partnership with different microscopic fungi in the soil, ensuring they do not compete with each other.
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