One Orchid Two Colors

Bumblebees are no dummies. Far from being mindless drones whose sole purpose it to benefit the colony, these industrious insects are quite capable of learning and memory. They are constantly evaluating their foraging strategies and are quick to abandon a food source that doesn't deliver. For plants that rely on bumblebees, this presents a particular challenge. 

Of course, plants want to maximize their reproductive effort while at the same time minimizing their energy investments. For this reason, some plant species have foregone any sort of reward. Nectar is costly to produce after all. This non-rewarding strategy is particularly widespread among the orchids. Take for instance the case of the elder-flowered orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina) of Europe. A species of meadows and alpine grasslands, it prefers calcarious conditions. What is most stunning about this species are its floral displays. 

Its inflorescence is made up of a dense cluster of flowers. Unlike what we are used to with most flowering plants, the flowers of the elder-flowered orchid come in two distinct color morphs - purple and yellow. They are so drastically different that one could be excused for thinking they were two different species. What's more, the different color morphs cooccur throughout the species' range. What could be causing this dimorphism? The answer lies in the flowers themselves. 

The edler-flowered orchid is one of those non-rewarding species. It has no nectar and its pollen is bunched up in sacs called pollinia that bees can't really harvest. The main pollinators of this species are bumblebees. As I have hinted, bumblebees are all about optimizing their foraging efforts. They quickly learn which plants are worth visiting and which plants are not. They do this via a highly tuned search image. Any plant that doesn't give them what they want will soon be shunned. 

This is where having different colored flowers comes in handy. Researchers have discovered that the color ratios of any given orchid population are under what is referred to as "negative frequency-dependent selection." Here's how it works: naive bumblebees that visit a non-rewarding flower of one color (purple in this example) are then much more likely to visit a flower of a different color (yellow). It just so happens that the plant with a different flower color (yellow) often turns out to be the same species of orchid. 

The result of this behavior is that in any given population, the plants with the rarer flower color (yellow) get visited more often. Because flower color is under genetic control, that particular morph (yellow) will gradually rise in frequency. Once it becomes the dominant flower color, the reverse happens and the first color (purple) is then visited more often. 

Over time this causes back and forth shifts in flower color that eventually settles on some sort of stable ratio of purple to yellow flowers. Thus anyone botanizing a high-elevation meadow in Europe can find purple and yellow flowered orchids in the same population. By tapping into the bees' natural foraging tendencies, this non-rewarding orchid species is able to maintain its presence in the landscape without having to invest valuable energy into floral rewards. 

Photo Credit: Emilio (

Further Reading:

What is the Most Common Flower Color?

Have you ever wondered what the most common flower color is? If one were to tally up all the known flowering plants, what color or colors would come out on top? I have pondered this time and again and I for some reason have a bias towards yellow. I think it is a symptom of where I live. In fact, I think flower color in general can, in part, be considered a function of geographic location. Each region of the world has its own specific pollinators driving selection for flower color. I decided to finally try and track down an answer to this question. 

The truth of the matter is, no one really knows. There is simply no database out there that fully characterizes all the colors flowers can be, let alone rank them by abundance. When you really think about it in the context of real world examples, it makes sense that this would be a daunting task. The first question becomes "how do we define the color of a flower?" This may seem silly but think about it. How many times has a field guide said one thing and reality says another? This is the main reason I don't use Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers. Colors vary from genus to genus and heck, they even vary within a species. A plant growing in one area may look one way while the same species growing in another area can look totally different. Far from being simply a function of genes, flower color can be just as dependent on growing conditions. 

Also, what one botanist calls red may not be what everyone else calls red. Barring a persons ability to see all of the visible light spectrum, there is no set standard, for flowers at least, as to where we draw the lines between colors. What we end up with at the end of the day are lumped packages of color pertaining to a chunk of the spectrum visible to us. It is actually an easier question to ask "what is the rarest flower color?" To that, most botanists will probably say black. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one species of plant in the world with truly black flowers. The rest are more accurately deep shades of red or purple. True blue is another rare color among flowers for the same reason

After a few hours (more than I should have dedicated to the cause) I came up with one satisfying answer and to sum it all up, I will put it this way: We simply have no idea what the most common flower color is in the world but it's probably green. We tend to only pay attention to the showiest flowers. Big or small, we like bright colors and we like weird colors. All the rest just get glazed over. In reality, many plant species, especially trees, produce small, non-descript green flowers. For this reason I would say that green is a safe default until someone or a group of someones puts in the time that would be needed to put any meaningful numbers to this inquiry.

Photo Credit: Mor (