Pachylia ficus

Photo by Carlton Ward Jr

A fig sphinx moth (Pachylia ficus) nectaring on a ghost orchid. Note the yellow blob of pollen on the moth’s head.

By Chad Gillis

Fort Myers News-Press

The mystery has been solved.

Well, kind of.

For decades scientists have thought that the giant sphinx moth was the only pollinator for the treasured ghost orchid, an Everglades air plant so in demand that it was almost harvested into extinction in South Florida.

But two well-known photographers and a ghost orchid expert proved recently that the giant sphinx moth may not pollinate the ghost orchid at all, but there are several other species of massive hawk moths that do.

Photographers Mac Stone and Carlton Ward shot more than 52,000 frames while attempting to capture for the first time a giant sphinx month pollinating a ghost orchid.

“We had this moment when we thought we wouldn’t even get it,” Stone said Friday after a presentation at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Naples-area refuge where the cameras were stationed. “We knew our chances would be much higher because of the super ghost but we never actually believed it would work.”

The super ghost orchid is a massive specimen that has bloomed in every month of the year.

Ghost orchids typically flower in the hot summer months.

Stone said he and Peter Houlihan were stunned when they first saw the images.

They were high in a cypress tree, hanging from a series of ropes among the subtropical canopy.

“After we came down Peter (Houlihan) and I hugged it out, we were so happy,” Stone said. “He’s been working on it for years and years. It was so cool that each of us almost gave this to each other, like a present.”

Houlihan’s research was meant to close a door, to shut the case on whether the giant sphinx month really did pollinate the ghost orchid.

But he opened several others because they recorded multiple species pollinating the mystical plants.

“The giant sphinx moth was feeding at the ghost orchid but it had already visited a moon flower, and so you could see the pollen on the face from that other species,” Houlihan said.

Houlihan said this giant sphinx moth had such a long proboscis that it fed at a distance from the flower, meaning it didn’t get pollen on its face.

“The giant sphinx moth has such a long proboscis that it is able to feed at a distance from the flower, where it looks like these hawk moths with slightly shorter tongues are forced to actually dive deeper into the flower to retrieve the nectar,” Houlihan said.

The group recorded five species of hawk moths, four of which pollinated the ghost orchid.

“There could be 10 other species,” Houlihan said. “It changes everything we knew before. It hadn’t been documented but people were positive that it was this one species and that was it. Now we don’t have any proof that that one is actually pollinating the orchid whereas these other ones are.”

Houlihan said he’d keep working with the photographers on this project as long as the cameras are in the sanctuary.

“It’s still up there in the tree right now,” Stone said. “You get invested personally and you commit so much of your time to this and your hopes and expectations. It’s really nice for it to work, especially in a beautiful place like this.”

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