An unusual relationship between an odd orchid and its bee accomplice has much to teach us about whether the world is an accident or the work of a Designer.
In the amazing catalogue of living things that fill the earth, one discovers a myriad of examples of incredible intricacy that demonstrate just how complex life-forms and their cycles can be.
Flowers, the reproductive organs of flowering plants (angiosperms), are a case in point. We can easily marvel at the delicacy of a cherry blossom, a rose, or a lily. One type of flower, however, is particularly captivating, both in its design and in the manner in which it conscripts an unsuspecting assistant to ensure the survival of its species.
Coryanthes speciosa and Stanhopea grandiflora, the two species of “bucket orchids,” are native to the tropical areas of Mexico, Central and South America, and Trinidad. These members of the orchid family produce a flower that is uniquely beautiful in the plant kingdom. They also have a very sophisticated means of reproduction that requires the services of specific species of “orchid bees.” There are about 250 species of orchid bee, which are some of the most ostentatious of the bee kind, noted for their jewel-like appearance (Stephen Buchmann, “Orchid Bees,” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture). Two subspecies of orchid bee, Euglossa meriana and Euglossa cordata, are just the right size, weight, and shape to be of assistance to the bucket orchid (Geoff Chapman, “Orchids… a witness to the Creator,” Creation magazine, September 1996).
The males of a particular subspecies of these bees will only visit one subspecies of bucket orchid, ensuring that no cross-pollination of this delicate flower will occur. Each subspecies of bucket orchid secretes a scented, oily perfume, which is produced in the upper hood of the flower. Because each bucket orchid species produces a unique scent, useful in attracting its own species of orchid bee, and because of the highly specialized process involved, cross pollination is prohibited by design. The scent the males seek will only attract a female of his species, maintaining the integrity of the system for both plant and pollinator. The male bees fill special pouches on their hind legs with it, using the perfume to attract lady friends, and they will endure any hardship to smell their best.
The upper part of the flower, in which the plant produces its oily perfume, has a waxy surface, made more slippery by the perfume itself. As the bees go about collecting their treasure, they usually slip and fall into the lower part of the flower—the “bucket” that gives the flower its name. Above the bucket is a gland that drips a watery fluid through a spigot, keeping the bucket partially filled. This species of orchid bee is just the right size and weight for the remarkable process that takes place during its visit to this fascinating flower. The bee, having fallen into the bottom of the bucket, would perish there in the liquid, unable to escape, were it not for a small “step” on the edge of the bucket. This step is just the right size and shape to enable the bee to pull itself out of the pool.
Alas, however, our bee would remain trapped in the flower were it not for a small tunnel located beyond the step. The tunnel, or tube, is just large enough for our species of orchid bee to pass through, and so he begins his escape. But just as he is about to exit to freedom, his escape tube contracts, holding the bee tightly in place. The contraction of this tube causes the secretion of a small amount of glue onto the bee’s back, but only upon a tiny, targeted area so as not to inhibit the bee’s ability to fly. Then two orange-coloured sacs containing pollen (when the flower is in its “male phase”) are pressed onto the glue. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour for the glue to set, after which the escape tube relaxes and the bee flies free, now carrying the only pollen sacs that flower will produce.
Our bee, despite his harrowing adventure, still has his lady friends in mind, and is in no way deterred from visiting another bucket orchid of the same species to top up his cologne supply. Alas, during the gathering of more scent oil, he again finds himself plunged into the bucket of another bucket orchid. Doggedly, he climbs out of the pool using the convenient step and goes through the now-familiar tunnel to freedom. This time, if the orchid flower has entered its “female phase,” instead of pollen sacs awaiting him at the end of the tunnel, there is a small hook-like structure. This removes the pollen sacs from the bee’s back and causes them to open and pollinate the flower’s pistil, or female reproductive organ, beginning the process leading to the development of orchid seeds, and thus ensuring another generation of this incredible plant.
Interestingly, even Charles Darwin recognized that there was no indication in the fossil record of the “evolution” of flowers, as he noted in an 1881 letter to botanist Sir Joseph Hooker. Darwin never did offer an explanation as to how a process like “natural selection” was sufficient to create a complex symbiotic (that is, mutually beneficial) relationship such as we see in this instance. In fact, the bucket orchid’s mechanism of pollination seems quite contrary to the norms of Darwinian theory. Processes that make survival more difficult and more prone to failure are supposed by Darwinism to be eliminated through natural selection, yet in the case of the bucket orchid, a complex mechanism that requires a partnership with a single sub-species of bee—making survival even chancier—has flourished for millennia. Add to this the need of a simultaneous development of the highly specialized characteristics in the flower and pollinator, and a random process, such as described by Darwinian evolution, is totally improbable mathematically, without intelligent direction..
This unique process prevents significant cross-pollination with other orchid species, helping to preserve the genetics of these plants in a relatively unchanged state from generation to generation. Bucket orchids still flourish today, inspiring wonder and joy in those who study them. This complex symbiotic relationship between a specific bee and a remarkable flower can only be the product of deliberate design. Any unbiased mind would have no choice but to agree.
The proclivity of man to deny that this world and the life within it are the products of a Great Designer is not new. Long ago, the great Jewish scholar we know as Paul wrote in frustration of those who find all sorts of ways to try to explain away the obvious:
[W]hat may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:19–20).
There are few examples that point any more clearly to the creative genius of that Great Designer than that of the little bucket orchid and the tenacious orchid bee.