08 May, 2015

Orchids and Ants - It's the time of the season to feel the love

It's that time again - the end of the dry season that has so many plants and birds around here focusing on procreation.  Is this the season the Zombies had in mind when they recorded "The Time Of The Season"?  Click here to listen while you read about these ant-loving Cow Horn Orchids.

(A little aside - our friend and former neighbor at SteppingStones, Chris Harris, went to school at St. Albans with members of the Zombies.  He knew Zombies before they were cool!)

For weeks I have been watching as the slender green inflorescent spikes on the orchids get longer and longer, almost like watching asparagus grow.  Nothing happens for ages and then suddenly, boom like that, there they are.
Impressive, no?  You might even say hard to miss.  But you would be surprised.
Most of these orchids, which are epiphytes, are way up high in the tree canopy and the clusters of blossoms can get lost in sheer mass of vegetation.
High overhead, the flowers are easy to pass under without noticing.  The flowers on the right are on a long stalk coming out of the dense green plant on the left.
You have to actually look for them at the right time of the season, then you wonder how you could have possibly overlooked them before.
I was using my zoom lens and also cropped the photo to get this image of the flower that was way over my head.  Look at the curlicue petals.  According to various references I consulted, the curly petals are what gives it the common name of cow horn. No, I don't see it either.  
I know of some plants that are closer to the ground and are amenable to ladder-less photography.  The flower stalks are overrun with ants!
Ants are on all the flowers; the dried ones, the fresh ones, the buds.  They get nectar from the green patches on the flowers.  
Myrmecophila, the genus of the orchid, means "ant lover" (myrmex is Greek for ant and phila is Greek for love).  Easy to see that the ants might love the orchid, after all they get sweet nectar from it.  But what do the orchids love about the ants?
The big(ger) picture - This is a small portion of a huge mass of orchids behind our generator shed.  The flower stalks are so long that they are out of the frame.  What I want you to see are the cylindrical pseudobulbs from which the leaves emerge.  They are the key to the ant/orchid relationship.
The ants live in the hollow pseudobulbs.  They pack the pseudobulbs with all kinds of stuff - dead ants and other insects, dirt and sand, plant debris and seeds.  I bet there is ant poo in there, too.  In other words, they provide and deliver a sort of soil to the orchids up high in the tree branches.  They deserve their love.

Whose your daddy?

You can read more about Cow Horn Orchids and see a few photos of other orchids here and here.


  1. Great song Wilma, I remember the Zombies well from the 60's.

    Here in the UK, a notorious pest of most plants are tiny aphids, which re-produce by the thousands on a non-stop basis and suck the sap of the host plant. They also secrete a sweet liquid called honeydew which ants love and so ants will farm these aphids by carrying them to new host plants and starting up new production lines that they can then milk.

    1. The lead singer had such a smooth voice.
      Aphid farming ants are in the Americas too, but I didn't realize that the ants actually transfer aphids to new plants! Ants are amazing.

  2. What a fascinating symbiotic relationship. And what elaborate orchids - make our ones in the UK look like amateurs! :-) It would be a funny cow to have horns that looked like that!

    1. i think it is hard to beat those fields of orchids that you had on your blog. That said, Belize does have an incredible number of orchid species. Some have tiny flowers only millimeters in size and others are massive and showy. There is a good mix of terrestrial and epiphytic species. I am only beginning to scratch the surface.

  3. I do envy you being able to see beautiful orchids in their natural environment.

    1. We live in one big Botanic Garden called Belize. :-)

  4. Your photos are always beautiful. Great eye, great things to eye, and a great place to eye them from.

    1. We live in an amazing place. So glad you like what you see on my blog. Cheers!


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