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In the case of this particular Ophrys, that animal is a relative of the bumblebee. The orchid offers no nectar or pollen reward; rather, it seduces male bees with the promise of bee sex and then insures its pollination by frustrating precisely the desire it has excited. The orchid accomplishes its sexual deception by mimicking the appearance, scent, and even the tactile experience of a female bee. The flower, in other words, traffics in something very much like metaphor: This stands for that. Not bad for a vegetable.

Orchid hunting can be arduous in many places, but in the mountains of Sardinia Ophrys orchids grow like roadside weeds. When they bloom in April you can spot them from a moving car. Close up, the lower lip, or labellum, of these diminutive orchids bears an uncanny resemblance to a female bee as viewed from behind. This pseudobee, which in some Ophrys species comes complete with fake fur and what appear to be elbows and folded iridescent wings, looks as though she has her head buried in a green flower formed by the actual flower's sepals. To reinforce the deception, the orchid gives off a scent that has been shown to closely match the pheromones of the female bee.

When it comes to getting an orchid pollinated, sexual deception has an uneven success rate (more on that later), but when it does work, it works like this: The real male bee alights on the beelike labellum and attempts to mate, or in the words of one botanical reference, begins "performing movements which look like an abnormally vigorous and prolonged attempt at copulation." In the midst of these fruitless exertions, the bee jostles the orchid's column (a structure that houses both the male and female sexual organs), and two yellow sacs packed with pollen (called the pollinia) are stuck to his back with a quick-drying gluelike substance. Frustration mounts, until eventually it dawns on the bee that he has been had. He abruptly flies off, pollinia firmly attached, in frantic search of more authentic female companionship.

There was something poignant about the bee I spotted, flying around madly with what looked like a chubby pair of yellow oxygen tanks strapped to his back. He'd been deluded by the promise of sex—bee sex—when in fact all that was on offer was plant sex, and unbeknownst to the bee, now searching for a second, more satisfactory liaison, he was right in the middle of that act. Botanists have been known to refer to pollen-carrying bees as "flying penises," but of course most of the world's bees perform in that role unwittingly, with food rather than sex on the brain. Not so for the poor, deluded orchid bee.

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