Sex and the South African orchid

Deception is a common tactic in the natural world when it comes to passing on genes to the next generation. From a cuckoo depositing its egg in another bird’s nest, to the man who exaggerates his wealth to impress a lady in a singles’ bar, there’s no shortage of examples of how cheating is an entrenched method of genetic survival.

But how does jilting a bee or butterfly pay off for the pretty flowers that lure pollinators with the promise of a sweet nectar meal, but don’t deliver?

That’s what U of C PhD student Nina Hobbhahn intends to find out as she spends the next eight months studying a diverse genus of orchids in the wilds of South Africa.

“People normally think of plants as passive beings that just sit there and wait for things to happen to them, but that’s not the case at all,” says Hobbhahn, a plant reproductive ecologist. “They have evolved very complex strategies to manipulate pollinator behavior, many of which we don’t fully understand.”

Focusing on more than a dozen species of Disa orchids, Hobbhahn will be comparing the outcome of the pollination process in flowers that reward their visitors with nectar to those that do not produce nectar and instead rely on other techniques, such as mimicking other flowers.

Pollinators don’t like flowers with no nectar, so they tend to spend less time on those flowers and travel further distances between them,” Hobbhahn explains. “My hypothesis is that they receive less pollen, but that it is of better quality, because the incidence of self-pollination is reduced.”

Hobbhahn is part of biological science professor Lawrence Harder’s lab and is an Alberta Ingenuity Scholarship recipient. Readers can follow her progress by visiting:

For more information, contact:

Grady Semmens
Senior Communications Manager – Research
University of Calgary
Phone: (403) 220-7722
Email: [email protected]


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