To test whether the nectarless flowers of Cypripedium tibeticum attract pollinators through mimicry like the allied species C. macranthos var. rebunense, pollination biology of C. tibeticum was investigated in western China. Although C. tibeticum was also pollinated by bumble bee queens, i.e. Bombus lepidus , B. lucorum and B. hypnorum , no special, rewarding model plants were found in the habitat. Field experimentation confirmed that the flowers were self-compatible but insects were required to transfer orchid pollen to the stigma. Both Bombus queens and workers were visitors, but queens were much more frequent than workers and only queens were effective pollinators. Floral functional morphology analysis showed that it was large queens rather than small workers that fitted well with the flowers of C. tibeticum. With the faint sweet-fruity scent, the minor floral fragrance compound, ethyl acetate, probably plays a role in attracting bumble bees by food deception. The dark flowers with the inflated, trap-like labellum are hypothesized to mimic the nest site of queens. Therefore, bumble bee queens tend to be attracted by C. tibeticum through nest site mimic combined with food deception. Considering that the co-blooming flowers of C. flavum are pollinated by the Bombus workers, and C. smithii pollinated by a queen, we suggest that using the same bumblebees with different body sizes as the pollinators is the main reproductive isolation between interfertile C. tibeticum and C. flavum, while C. tibeticum and C. smithii tend to hybridize naturally.
BombusCypripedium tibeticumfood deception nest site mimic functional morphology reproductive isolation