Let’s move beyond those black and yellow buzzers that are hanging around our hydrangeas and focus our attention on a particular bee variety that’s far less common in these parts, but absolutely demands a spotlight thanks to its brilliant armor designed to dazzle. We’re talking about the orchid bee (not to be confused with the bee orchid)—and it’s just as beautiful as it sounds.
The orchid bee (Euglossa viridissima) looks like the type of creature you’d find in a tropical rainforest and rightly so, it’s found in forests from Mexico to Brazil. What might be a bit more surprising is that the orchid bee has recently taken up residence in Florida, where, according to the University of Florida, evidence points to an expanding population. Their shiny bodies have less hair than a typical bee and take on a spectrum of bold, metallic hues including purple, red, blue, brass, and gold. They have excessively long tongues that can be double in length compared to their bodies.
Male orchid bees are known to traverse up to 30 miles in order to collect an array of enticing smells (which are stored in pockets in their back legs) from the orchid’s blotting pads, which is where orchids display these synthetic fragrances particularly designed to attract the male bee. It’s all a ploy to ensure pollination.
According to an article for Arizona State University by biologist Katie Ihle who researched orchid bees in the Barro Colorado Island, the flowers put off fragrances of cinnamon, vanilla, and sometimes even rotting meat. When the male lands on the orchid, the plant will glue pollinaria (pollen packets) to the bee. The bee will then travel to the next orchid of the same species, pollinating as he goes.
There are two winners in this equation, the bee who is able to collect the perfume of the orchids, which scientists believe could be used to attract mates, and the orchids themselves that get pollinated in the process.
Male orchid bees don’t only rely on orchids to achieve their fragrance goals. Fungi, tree wounds, and other flowers are also on their list of go-tos.