An evolutionary dead end?
Is Epipactis veratrifolia a ruthless imposter? Johannes Stkl answers: "At least the plant provides a small amount of nectar for the deceived hoverflies. This is comparable to two related species, the wasp-pollinated orchids E. helleborine and E. purpurata, which lure stingy insects by mimicking their prey, mostly butterfly larvae. However, unlike Epipactis veratrifolia these species reward their pollinators by providing large amounts of nectar."
Nevertheless, the scientist would classify the Eastern marsh helleborine as a treacherous imposter, because hoverfly larvae hatching from the eggs laid in its flowers won't find any food there and must die. From an evolutionary perspective this seems to be a contradiction: If hoverfly larvae die, the population of this species is decimated and as a consequence the number of pollinators decreases.
"We cannot provide a coherent explanation of this conflict. However, we can imagine where the mimicry of the alarm pheromone is originated," says Bill Hansson. The plant is remarkably aphid-free, probably due to the emission of α- and β-pinine. These two volatiles are produced by aphids in case of danger. Therefore aphids avoid everything that smells of α- and β-pinine. Both substances may have originally been used by the Eastern marsh helleborine as a defense against aphids. Once hoverflies were fooled and mistook the volatiles for aphids, they also served the purpose of attracting pollinators. [JWK, AO]
|Contact: Bill S. Hansson|
Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology