Charles Darwin himself once commented: 'Nothing is more extraordinary in the history of the vegetable kingdom, as it seems to me, than the apparently very sudden and abrupt development of the higher plants.'1 The orchid family is one of the largest plant families, with about 30,000 species. Orchids come in many shapes and sizes, the best known probably being the insect–mimicking species. Many of these mimics have very ingenious ways of attracting pollinating insects, appealing to the senses of both sight and smell. Can evolution explain the origin of these mechanisms?
Darwin was fascinated by orchids; in his Origin of Species he mentioned the 'inexhaustible number of contrivances' by which orchids ensure their pollination, pointing out that these would have entailed changes in every part of the flower.2 However, Darwin did not attempt to explain how natural selection could gradually produce flowers that resemble insects so perfectly that the insects themselves are fooled. He merely described these structures as 'the sum of many inherited changes', which is not an explanation, merely an opinion.
Modern–day evolutionists have no convincing explanation, either, simply claiming that flowers and insects have evolved simultaneously to be complementary to each other. The late Gordon Rattray Taylor was an evolutionist, who, nonetheless, posed many difficult questions about the theory. Concerning orchids, he wrote: 'Many of the variations in the form of orchids can have little or no selective value; or, at least, one variant is not more advantageous than another.'3 He also wrote: 'The Lady's Slipper Orchid has an immensely complicated system of fertilization—and is on the verge of extinction.'4
The intricate design of many orchids belies the idea that they slowly evolved. Since the whole purpose of their sophisticated machinery is to ensure the continuation of the species through pollination, and since without pollination the species would become extinct, it follows that every part of this apparatus needed to be in place and working right from the start.
If an orchid needed to look like a bee or other insect in order to attract a pollinator, then until it bore a significant resemblance the insect would not be interested.
One of the most amazing members of the orchid family is the Bucket Orchid, which comes in two species, Coryanthes speciosa and Stanhopea grandiflora. These orchids have an intricate mechanism by which bees are attracted, trapped, and then released. Bucket orchids are pollinated by the males of two species of bee—Euglossa meriana and Euglossa cordata—which themselves are specially designed for the task.
Attracted in the first instance by the smell of nectar emanating from the orchid, the bee gathers from the surface of the flower a liquid which will make him attractive to female bees. These bees have collecting organs on their modified forelegs which pass the odour to pockets in the hind legs, from which it can be released to attract females for mating.
The surface of the orchid is slimy, which causes the bee to slip and fall into the 'bucket' that contains a pool of liquid dripping from a gland above. The only way the bee can escape is through a tunnel, and there is a convenient step leading from the pool of liquid to the tunnel entrance.
As the bee is about to escape from the tunnel, the walls of the tunnel contract, gripping the bee. The plant's mechanism then glues two pollen sacs to the bee's back, and after allowing time for the glue to dry, releases it. If the bee then flies to another bucket orchid, the same process will take place, except that this time, when the bee attempts to leave the tunnel, a hook in the roof of the tunnel removes the pollen sacs, and the fertilization process is completed!
The bucket orchid's mechanism involves at least five separate functions, which must work in the correct sequence—attracting the bee, causing it to fall into the bucket, the provision of the gland to keep the bucket 'topped up' with liquid, provision of a tunnel exit, and the devices for attachment and removal of the pollen sacs. If any part of the mechanism were missing, or incomplete, the plant could not be fertilized. The origin of the bucket orchid's wonderful and ingenious machinery is surely fatal to the theory of gradual evolution.
These flowers must have been created and designed to operate this way from the very beginning, and bear abundant witness to the design and power of God, the Creator.
- Bees become attracted to the flower of the Coryanthes orchid.
- The bee slips and falls into the ‘bucket’.
- Because of the angle and slipperiness of the interior walls, the bee is forced to exit through the narrow ‘escape tunnel’, conveniently aided by a step and hairs suitably placed near the surface. As it does so, pollen sacs are glued to its back by the plant.
The bee then visits another flower, and after the process is repeated again, the flower has a mechanism for removing the pollen from its back this time, completing fertilization.
Special thanks to Ian and Pat Walters of Burleigh Park Orchid Nursery (Townsville, Australia), suppliers of species orchids, for the unique and beautiful photographs of Coryanthes speciosa and Coryanthes alborosa var. alba. Also, thanks to Mr Trevor Porteous for his expertise and help.