Vanilla beans and the bees that love them

I like to cook and bake.  I am not always successful, but I give it a good shot!  Years ago I learned how easy it was to make vanilla extract and ever since then, I make up a big batch a few times a year.  I go through a lot of vanilla (ever had a rum and coke with a few drops of good vanilla extract?).  The worst part about it is the time it takes.  Usually, I let mine sit for about three months before I think it is ready.  There is nothing like the smell of vanilla beans and seeing all that gooey black goodness when you slice the pods open.

Did you know that vanilla beans are the seed pod of an orchid?  It can take about vanilla2_webfive years for a plant to develop to the point it can start producing flowers and seed pods.  Cultivated plants are difficult to raise and even more difficult to pollinate.  If unpollinated, less than 6% of the flowers produce a fruit.  To complicate matters even more, the flowers only open for about 24 hours.  And like many orchid species, they have just a single species of bee that can pollinate them.  In this case, it is just three species of Eulaema bees (debate is still ongoing about Melipona).  I think they look a bit like bumble bees.  The male collects fragrances from orchid flowers, which it stores in little cavities in its hind legs.  Orchids are deceptive by mimicking the form of a female bee and her sex pheromone, Eulaema_merianathus luring the male bees in. Pollination will take place as the males attempt to mate with the labellum (the tip petal of the flower).  Poor little guy thinking he is going to get a little love.

When he does finally find a girl (a real one), they mate and the female goes off to start her nest.  The nest is usually in a cavity just below the ground and since these are not social bees, just a single female constructs a cell at a time.  She provisions each pot-shaped cell with a ball of pollen mashed up with some nectar.  She lays a single egg on top, then repeats the process.  The developing brood takes up to 165 days to develop into an adult which will start the process all over again.

This mutualistic relationship between bee and flower is very specialized.  The vanilla orchid and the bees have evolved together to be specialized for each other.  Without the bee, the orchids die out.  Today, most cultivated plants are pollinated by hand, but wild pollination still occurs and non-cultivated plants still need their bees.

Pretty entomologically awesome huh?eulaema-marcii-pseudocingulata-lateral

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