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Orchid Monastics in a Golden Orchid Rain (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) ink on paper

Our Inktober special feature of Halloween-adjacent pen-and-ink drawings continues with this enigmatic golden orchid monastery piece which I drew with colored inks on yellow paper.

Lately I have been drawing a series of intricate altarpiece-style compositions after the style of Medieval illuminators (whose seminal contributions to art, culture, and media have been underappreciated because of the post-Vasari cult of celebrity). Hopefully writing about these illustrations in these posts will help contextualize the themes I am trying to highlight.  

Here is a little monastic microcosm of the world.  In one monastery, a white-haired abbot lords it over his little flower novices.  In a sister monastery, the mother superior and her votaries carefully send out an intimate message to the monks by means of technology. Sundry lizard people, extinct animals, and cloaked figures roam about in the space between the two houses as a rain of yellow orchid blossoms falls down from the heavens.

To my mind, the most important part of this composition is the tiny strip of nature in the foreground–a little ecosystem of weeds, wildflowers, seeds, nemotodes, myriapods, and maggots (who are furiously breaking down a mouse skull). The human world of sly courtships, status posturing, and religious grandstanding grows up out of this substrate and pretends to be superior to it (while actually being entirely dependent on the microscopic cycles of life).  All of the pompous & made-up things which humankind uses to dress up our savage primate drives do not change the fact that ecosystems are of paramount importance.

The religions of Abraham (among others) put animals and the natural world at the bottom of their moral hierarchy. I believe they are ultimately doomed because of this stupid outlook.  Whether they will take us all to a garbage-strewn grave with them remains an open question.  

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An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

Here in New York the weather outside is February gray.  The buildings are gray.  The sky is gray.  The trees are gray.  The people are dressed in gray and black.  Fortunately we can beguile away this monochromatic tedium by contemplating the Euglossini, also known as the orchid bees!

Despite their Latin name, the Euglossini are not uniformly eusocial.  This means that most species of orchid bees live solitary lives (in marked contrast to honeybees–which live in vast hives more ordered than the strictest totalitarian state).  The orchid bees live in Central and South America, apart from one species which ranges into North America.  They are notable for their brilliant iridescent blue and green coloring.  The females build nests out of mud and resin.

Museum specimens of orchid bees

Museum specimens of orchid bees

The most remarkable aspect of Euglossini behavior is the male bee’s obsession which the aromatic compounds produced by various tropical orchids.  Male orchid bees have a rarified ability to sense these fragrances even in small quantities (like many heady floral/fruit scents the chemicals produced by the orchids are usually complex esters).  The bees harvest the molecules with front legs specially modified to resemble little brushes (and in doing so they generally pollinate the orchids, which are wholly dependent on the bees).  Astonishingly, the male bees store the chemicals in a cavity on their back leg which is sealed off and protected by waxy hairs.

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

The male bees appear to use these compounds when trying to attract a mate but no female attraction to the odors has been proved.  On the other hand, many Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae orchids are absolutely dependent on the male bees to reproduce.  Different species of these orchids rely on specific species of orchid bees to successfully pollinate far-away partners in the rainforest.  Charles Darwin wrote about this pollination system after observing it in the wild and later referred to the highly specialized orchids as proof of the ways in which species adapt to their environments.

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona's Center for Insect Science Website)

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science Website)

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