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Darwin Days 2016: Beware the Orchids


By Sarah Sinoski


Roanoke College celebrated its 9th year of honoring Charles Darwin with Darwin Days– a blend of fun, educational lectures and workshops. From Feb. 8th to the 13th, students learned about orchids, a plant species Darwin famously studied both at home in England and abroad. The festivities concluded Saturday with a scavenger hunt– an event boasting $800 dollars in prize money, as well as a free Darwin Days shirt for participants.

The lecturers brought a wide variety of life experiences and specialized knowledge to the table. Topics ranged from structure and life cycle of the orchids themselves, to the array of tropical bee species responsible for their pollination. Far from the average boring lecture, the speakers kept the auditorium entertained with witty jokes and dazzling pictures of their subject matter.

Dr. Watkinson, a plant biologist who worked at RC up until four years ago, gave a lecture on Feb.10th about the biology of orchids. Orchids became his passion after he got his very first specimen from Longwood Gardens orchid room. He said that his first orchid only lasted two weeks, but he retained a fascination for them and went on to study them later in order to find out more about them. Orchids have pan global distribution, which means that orchids are found in every continent but Antarctica.

Orchids were around when dinosaurs walked the Earth, and today there are more than 27,000 species. One is even responsible for the flavor of vanilla!

Watkinson reminded students earnestly that there are always more answers to find, and to never be afraid to ask the questions and find the answers. He even quoted Fox Mulder, saying “The truth is out there!”

Dr. Valerie Banschbach gave a presentation on the orchid bees that help to pollinate Orchids while getting the scents they need to entice prospective mates. The presentation titled, “The Orchid Bees and their Mating Behaviors: Perfume, Display and Deception,” kicked off with a beautiful high-resolution picture of an iridescent, jewel-colored bee hovering in the air.

She explained that the male bees were enticed to the strong scent of the orchids, and then the orchids glued a sticky pollen sack onto the backs of the bees while the bees were collecting terpenes, or scent chemicals, to pack into specialized leg pouches for later retrieval and combination with other collected scents.

In short, the male bees with the most complicated and attractive perfume win the ladies. The orchids get pollinated when the bees traveled from one orchid to the next, providing that they were the same species as the previous pollen donor. Talk about a win-win situation for both the bees and the orchids.

The lectures were held each evening in Massengill Auditorium, with demonstrations of cold framing and repotting orchids in Life Science. The scavenger hunt started in the first floor of Colket, amidst festive streamers, bountiful refreshments, and tables piled with this year’s lavender Darwin Days shirts.

Roanoke College is looking forward to next year, when they will have hosted a whole decade’s worth of Darwin Days celebrations.