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Brazil’s Ménage à Quad

by R.L. David Jolly

It all starts in South America, with the Brazil nut tree, Bertholletia excelsa. The Brazil nut tree grows to heights of 150 feet with a base diameter up to 7 feet. They produce a flower with very stiff and strong petals. Most insects don’t have the strength to open the petals enough to reach the nectar inside the flower and thus are incapable of pollinating them. However the large female orchid bee of the genus Euglossa, is strong enough to lift the petal hood of the flower. She also has a very long tongue that can reach the coiled interior’s rich nectar. In the process, the female orchid bee pollinates the Brazil nut flower.

Male orchid bees are too small to open and pollinate the Brazil nut flowers and they have absolutely no interest in the Brazil nut tree what-so-ever. Their main interest is attracting female bees for the purpose of mating. To accomplish this, the male bee seeks out the Coryanthes vasquezii orchid, where he wallows and covers himself with the orchid scent, kind of like how some men dowse themselves with aftershave or men’s cologne before going out on the hunt. Once covered with the orchid’s fragrant aroma, the male orchid bee searches for a larger female bee. If the orchid scent meets her approval, they mate and she will produce new orchid bees. If it doesn’t meet her approval, he seeks another orchid and repeats the process. Without the scent of this particular orchid, the female bee will not mate with the male.

Once pollinated, the Brazil nut flower grows into a cannonball sized seed pod which contains up to 20 Brazil nuts. When the pods get ripe, they fall to the ground with a tremendous thud. (Image having one them fall from 100+ feet up and hitting you on the head.) The seed pods are extremely hard and do not break open on impact. In fact, they are so hard, that virtual no animal in the South American forests can crack or chew through them. That is except a cat-sized rodent known as an agouti. There were several species of agoutis belonging to the genus Dasyprocta that inhabit the forests where the Brazil nuts grow. The agouti has extremely sharp incisors and very strong jaws, giving them the ability to chew through the hard outer shell of the seed pods, allowing them to dine on the highly nutritional nuts inside.

However, most agoutis cannot eat all of the nuts at one time, so they dig a hole and bury the rest of the opened seed pod in order to save it for another day. Once the seed pod is buried and the soil reaches the nuts inside the opened pod, they germinate and begin to grow new Brazil nut trees and the cycle begins all over again.

This is a very interesting relationship between the Brazil nut tree, the Coryanthes vasquezii orchid, the orchid bee and the agouti. Remove the orchid from the scene and the bees won’t mate and if they don’t mate, the flowers do not get pollinated and produce seed pods. Remove the agouti from the scene and the opened seed pods do not get buried and germinate into new trees, thus greatly reducing the number of new trees to replace the older ones.

read more at Brazil’s Ménage à Quad

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