The Orchid and the Bee (An Introduction to Symbiosis in Nature)

We tend to think of the natural world as a big fish eats little fish type world, a world where each and every creature competes against their fellow creatures in a fierce battle for survival. And while that may be true for creatures such as lions, tigers and (sometimes) bears, it’s not true for the entire animal kingdom.

Some creatures, it turns out, work quite well together. Rather than compete with each other, these creatures live together in a mutually beneficial relationship. In fact, sometimes the relationship is not just beneficial, but rather essential – one where the very survival of one or both of the creatures depends upon their relationship with the other creature.

This type of relationship is known as a symbiotic relationship and it’s actually more common than we think. For now, though, we’ll take a look at one particular example of a symbiotic relationship between an orchid and a bee:

What’s interesting to note about this relationship is to wonder what would happen if the relationship didn’t exist. For instance, what would those orchards do if there were no bees? Theoretically, there would be no orchids – they simply can’t exist without them. And how about those bees – just how crucial is the orchid to their lives? Can they attract a mate without them?

Of course, it is important to consider the possibility that other solutions can be found for both the orchid and the bee. The orchid may be able to find a different ‘shipper’ of it’s pollen and the bee another means of making its ‘perfume’. But this does not change the fact that a solution is needed. Whether it’s a bee or some other flying insect, it seems that the orchid simply can’t live on its own. It needs a flying (or at least moving) friend. Similarly, the male bee needs to get that special fragrance one way or the other.

What’s more, in the case of the orchid, it looks as if the plant was designed particularly with the bee in mind. It’s shape, structure and chemical makeup are designed to attract the bee, provide it with a ‘landing platform’ and ‘load’ it with the pollen that the bee then carries to the female orchid. And, at the same time it looks like those front legs of the orchid bee are pretty good tools for extracting fragrance from the orchid.

All in all, this symbiotic relationship between the orchid bee and the orchid indicates that there is yet another type of design in the natural world – one where the relationships themselves are designed (and not just the technical parts that make up an organism).

With that in mind, we can rightly wonder just how interconnected and/or interdependent the natural world really is. Are there relationships within relationships and/or more complicated connections than the simple partnership we witnessed above. And, of course, we can wonder how these creatures came into existence in the first place. After all, what good is the orchid without the bee or (perhaps) the bee without the orchid. It may be that they both need to come into existence at more or less the same time for either one of them to survive.

We’ll attempt to address those questions when we take a look at another symbiotic relationship – one involving a very industrious ant known as the leaf cutter ant. We’ll meet that ant (and his symbiotic friends) soon. In the meantime, here are some more symbiotic relationships for you to enjoy:

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