Sexual Deception in the Eucera-Pollinated Ophrys leochroma: A Chemical Intermediate between Wasp- and Andrena-Pollinated Species

J Chem Ecol. 2017 May;43(5):469-479. doi: 10.1007/s10886-017-0848-6. Epub 2017 May 23.


Ophrys flowers mimic sex pheromones of attractive females of their pollinators and attract males, which attempt to copulate with the flower and thereby pollinate it. Virgin females and orchid flowers are known to use the same chemical compounds in order to attract males. The composition of the sex pheromone and its floral analogue, however, vary between pollinator genera. Wasp-pollinated Ophrys species attract their pollinators by using polar hydroxy acids, whereas Andrena-pollinated species use a mixture of non-polar hydrocarbons. The phylogeny of Ophrys shows that its evolution was marked by episodes of rapid diversification coinciding with shifts to different pollinator groups: from wasps to Eucera and consequently to Andrena and other bees. To gain further insights, we studied pollinator attraction in O. leochroma in the context of intra- and inter-generic pollinator shifts, radiation, and diversification in the genus Ophrys. Our model species, O. leochroma, is pollinated by Eucera kullenbergi males and lies in the phylogeny between the wasp and Andrena-pollinated species; therefore, it is a remarkable point to understand pollinator shifts. We collected surface extracts of attractive E. kullenbergi females and labellum extracts of O. leochroma and analyzed them by using gas chromatography with electroantennographic detection (GC-EAD) and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS). We also performed field bioassays. Our results show that O. leochroma mimics the sex pheromone of its pollinator's female by using aldehydes, alcohols, fatty acids, and non-polar compounds (hydrocarbons). Therefore, in terms of the chemistry of pollinator attraction, Eucera-pollinated Ophrys species might represent an intermediate stage between wasp- and Andrena-pollinated orchid species.

Keywords: Chemical mimicry; Long-horned bee Eucera kullenbergi; Medium polar and non-polar compounds; Pollinator shift; Sexually deceptive orchid Ophrys leochroma.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Chromatography, Gas
  • Deception
  • Female
  • Flowers / chemistry
  • Flowers / metabolism
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Male
  • Orchidaceae / chemistry*
  • Orchidaceae / classification
  • Orchidaceae / metabolism
  • Phylogeny
  • Pollen / chemistry*
  • Pollen / metabolism
  • Sex Attractants / analysis
  • Sex Attractants / chemistry
  • Wasps / physiology*


  • Sex Attractants