Pyroërotica

I’ve been writing about fire-dependent creatures, and the biodiversity that arises both from stability and from cataclysm.

Usually, disaster is survived by species that are natural survivors: crows, raccoons, rodents, weeds — species that are opportunistic, omnivorous, and adaptable. But in some ecosystems, wonderfully specialized species evolve to fill the niche of destruction. And some of them are sexually energized by destruction, to the point of supreme kink.

This is the thynnid wasp of Australia:

Its buried eggs only hatch after one of the forest fires that devour the plains every summer. When the wingless female hatches, it climbs to the highest available stalk and emit a pheromone that attracts a male, who then kidnaps her and mates with her mid-air. This would all work perfectly, if the males didn’t hatch a few days before the female. See that orchid he’s perched on? It’s called a hammer orchid (Drakaea, after a famous botanical artist named Drake). When a forest fire strikes, its seeds germinate, and it grows with amazing rapidity, producing an incredibly complex flower in no time flat, a flower perfectly designed to exploit the wasp’s sexual passions.

Orchids are different from other flowers. Instead of being designed to attract all comers with an expensive glut of pollen and nectar, they usually attract only a single species of pollinator with false promises, intrigue, and deception. In the hammer orchid’s case, it designs its flower to have both the look and smell of a female thynnid wasp, producing a flower that not only looks like a female wasp waiting to be whisked away, but a perfume that mimics her pheremones. With no females around, and only a few days of experience on Earth, the male wasp mistakes the flower for a mate, and begins to… how do I put this delicately?… fuck it. The swinging “hammer” of the lower petal is hinged to bring the amorous wasp’s back right into its anthers, transferring the pollen sacs. All that is required for pollination is for the wasp to be fooled again, by a female flower, and the sexual intercourse reaches an orgasmic climax — not just for the satisfied orchid, but for the wasp, which often leaves its sperm splattered on the petals.

To see this hot action, watch the first two minutes of this clip from my favorite nature documentary of all time, Sexual Encounters of the Floral Kind, narrated by the inimitable Freddie Jones:

But the important part is: the event that invites this tryst is fire. In a way, you could call the wasp and the orchid pyrosexual, or, as I’m never one to mix Latin and Greek roots, pyroerotic. To be born, all must burn first. To begin the sexual consummation, all must burn first. On a charred landscape, still raw and black from destruction, what could be more natural than for the first two colonizers, new to this still-smoldering world, to find each other and desire nothing more than touch, pleasure? Than union, than the promise of survival?

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

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