Artificial Insemination of our Phantom Orchids Attempted

Phantom Orchid Gowlland-Tod2.jpgThe following is part of a continued saga of a planned and attempted artificial insemination of the Cephananthera austiniae – Phantom Orchids in and around Lincoln Park, West Seattle, here goes the detailed continuation:

For those who might want their own Phantom Orchid, be aware that the orchid is attached to a fungus that gives it all of it’s energy.  The fungus is in turn probably attached to the roots of one or more adjacent trees or shrubs that the fungus has a symbiotic relationship with.  Digging up a Phantom Orchid, would most likely kill any part of the orchid dug up, and quite possibly kill part or all of the orchid root remaining in the ground.

After finding that article illustrating a small bee species pollinating a European member of the Cephalanthera genus, I had thought it best to find a bee of a similar size, shape and hairiness to sacrifice to do the job.  After finding one appropriate looking bee on a bloom of the 8 1/2 foot tall Cirsium brevistylum – Short-styled Thistle at my coffee shop that I had planted there, as part of my efforts to re-introduce that species to Seattle, but not having grabbed that bee, I found myself looking on and off for maybe a week, there and elsewhere, to no avail, in hopes of finding what looked like a good victim bee.  Then yesterday, I settled for a smaller bee species that was nectaring on the umbel of an Oenanthera sarmentosa – Water Parsley in a wet spot above the beach at Lincoln Park.

When I got home, last night I stuck it in the freezer to kill it.  Then this morning I found it was a bit too curled up and stiff to easily manipulate, and I dropped it and lost it before getting a pin through its thorax.  On my next trip to Lincoln Park today, I was pleased to spot a bee, yellow with pollen, of just the right estimated size and shape and put my bug box over it with the Hypocharis radicata – Hairy Cat’s-ear bloom it was on, decapitating the plant to capture the bee and flower in my box.  I then found a nice park bench in the shade, by my favorite satellite Sanicula crassicaulis patch (In Seattle, this species only grows naturally in Lincoln Park and after doing a bunch of weeding in the one patch I had known of starting 14 years ago, a number of satellite patches showed up.  I’d like to think that my weeding helped them spread.)  This time I impaled the live, flexible bee, while squeezed in a bug net I had transferred it to.

After I fatally impaled the bee, I decided to toss the abdomen, using only the thorax with the head, wings and legs attached, moving it from the needle I impaled it on, to a toothpick with better traction on the inside of the bee.  I then brought it to the one remaining healthy looking orchid stalk of the 7 that had started coming up this year in 4 spots in the park.

I suspect off trail dogs were responsible for 2 crushed stalks of the 7 that started coming up this year.  I suspect an off leash human was responsible for one crushed stalk and maybe a curious off leash and off trail human responsible for the dissapearance of a stalk that was barely showing above the soil, while I thought I’d wait for it to grow a bit to examine if it was an additional orchid stalk, but was gone before I confirmed that.  Then I suspect curious off leash and off trail humans were responsible for the tops snapped off of 2 of the three remaining Lincoln Park orchids.

I then found moving inside the orchid flower to get the pollen sack off of the anther onto the back of the bee thorax was tougher than I had expected, but succeeded in getting a lump of white on the back of the thorax of the impaled bee.

I then tried getting the partial pollen sack onto the stigma of one of the sadder looking remaining orchids in a second location.  In the process of trying to get my impaled bee, with pollen lump on the back, into a couple of corollas prior, one flower had fallen off.  I suspect that one was already getting ready to drop, for lack of having been inseminated earlier, it’s eggs having gotten too old to keep on waiting for sperm to fertilize them.

I then brought the partial bee with partial pollinium to the one Phantom Orchid stalk I knew of that was off of the park property, but in the adjacent, contiguous woods to the north, at a friend’s place.  Again I found it tough to gently open the corolla throat see inside the orchid and get what I thought was a partial pollinium / pollen sack on a stigma, even with the 4X reading glasses I had on.  In the process of trying to get the partial pollen sack off of the back of the bee, I got two whole pollen sacks on the wings of the bee.  I’d guess that the whole, banana shaped pollinia are 2.5 mm.  I would have rather had them on the back of the thorax than on the wings, as I thought I could direct the throax back to the stigma of the first orchid better than directing the pollinia on the wings to the stigma.  I had wished I had taken the wings off after taking the abdomen off.

The whole process took more patience and energy than I might have guessed.

I decided that next time I’ll try using the toothpick without the bee, as one of my botanist network friends had already suggested.  I have already squared off one end of 2 toothpicks, slightly rounded the squared tip, and roughened the side of the tip a bit.  I suspect it will be easier to manipulate inside the corolla and direct towards the anther, then to the stigma of the second flower in the second site, than it was with a partial dead bee on the toothpick.

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2 Responses to Artificial Insemination of our Phantom Orchids Attempted

  1. Stewart says:

    I have now started the artificial insemination process for this year. Today I used a toothpick. I rubbed the anther on one flower in one location to get a pollinium (pollen sack) onto the tip of the toothpick. I got multiple pollen sacks, when I only wanted one per trip. I went to another location to get the pollen sack(s) onto one of the stigmas of another flower. While I succeeded in doing so for a few flowers in a few locations, I found that the square toothpick was hard to spin to orient the pollinia as I wanted to, so I will get a round toothpick (round in cross-section) next time I try. I also found it wasn’t so easy to get the pollinium to the stigma, behind the anther on the upper side of the inside of the mouth of the flower, without the pollinium getting stuck elsewhere. It might be easier if I had a second person holding the lower lip of the flower down, while I aimed the pollinium at the stigma. I also quickly lost track of which flowers, other than the first 2 or 3, I had already pollinated, so I will want to take notes next time.

  2. Stewart says:

    So far, about 5 Phantom Orchid flower stalks have come up this year! Sadly 3 of their brittle stalks have already been broken. I would bet it is the overpopulation of off-leash dogs that are gradually turning the park into devegetated zone with increasing doggie poop, some left in bags for me to put in the garbage can while I am weeding and cleaning up the park I love. And be reminded, in case you didn’t already know, these plants will most likely die if anyone were to try to dig them up, both the plant dug up, and possibly part or all of the plant / rhizome underground.

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