Fairy slipper deception


Our first orchid of the year, the fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa) is beautiful, but remarkably deceptive.

There is a nearly universal contract between pollinators (such as bees) and flowers: The bees provide the flowers with pollination in exchange for nectar and pollen. The fairy slipper breaks the contract and provides the bee with neither of these, but entices it to aid in its own pollination. After a short time, the pollinator gives up in seeking its reward and moves on to other flowers, but by then, the fairy slipper has succeeded in pollinating its neighbours. The flower glues a compact mass of pollen, the pollinia, to the bee’s back and the bee does not seem to even know it is there. The pollinia (sing. pollinium) is then released at a nearby flower with the bee being none the wiser. And the bee gains nothing.

We have two varieties: western and eastern. Among other things, they are distinguished by the colour of their (fake) stamen. 

This is a few of the western variety of the fairly slipper. The white stamen are fake.

Among the western variety there were a few eastern ones. The yellow stamen are fake.

A Bombus mixtus is carrying two pollinia on its back as it moves on from the fairy slippers.


This entry was posted in bugs, wildflowers. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fairy slipper deception

  1. Allan Hobden says:

    Really interesting..and even a pic of two pollinia on a bees back!


  2. Lorna Surina says:

    Well! Who knew? Not the bee and not me. I had no idea there were two varieties either.
    Thank you.

  3. Stephen Wells says:

    Fascinating. I wonder what the evolutionary advantage was/is for the orchid. Maybe just not having to put extra energy into provide fodder for the bees? Makes me look at them differently now. Beautiful, but tricksters! Thanks for the info. I saw some these last week up towards Kootenay Creek gorge.

  4. Douglas Thorburn says:

    Calypso bulbosa, the perfidious orchid!

Comments are closed.