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Orchid for June: Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Posted: Monday 5th June 2017 by Michael-Waller

Bee orchid (credit Michael Waller)Bee orchid (credit Michael Waller)

In his latest blog about London's orchids, London Wildlife Trust's Conservation Ecologist Michael Waller introduces us to the deceptive 'bee orchid'...

No other British orchid commands quite the same awe and sheer amazement than the bee orchid.

A first encounter with the bee orchid is a memory not easily forgotten. Its large exotic flowers, comprising of a single furry bumblebee-like petal set against a backdrop of three bright pink sepals, is both beautiful and unique.

Swaying lazily in the high summer breeze, the bee orchid seems better placed in a tropical greenhouse. But appearances can be deceptive…

Instead of providing a nectar reward to insect pollinators like most wildflowers, the bee orchid engages in a far more unusual form of attraction. The central petal of the flower, called the ‘lip’, has evolved over millions of years to mimic the appearance of a specific female bee species and even releases chemical compounds that exactly match the pheromones she releases.

The visual and chemical stimulus is powerful enough to attract male bees who, overcome with passion, attempt to mate with the bee orchid flower and in doing so, get sacks of pollen glued to their bodies.

These sacks of pollen called ‘pollinia’ are then carried to another bee orchid flower - achieving cross-pollination. This process of sexual deception is called ‘pseudocopulation’ and is unique to a handful of orchid groups, including the Ophrys genus of which the bee orchid is a member.

Luckily, you don't often have to look far to find your local bee orchids. The species is fairly common across the England and Wales but with a distinctly southern bias. Any area of wildflower-rich grassland could produce bee orchids with rarely trodden roadside verges being a classic favourite.

London Wildlife Trust has been working hard to create optimum bee orchid habitat at Chapel Bank and Saltbox Hill where they can be found with some careful searching. Elsewhere in London, the bee orchid can be found in good numbers at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, and Mitcham Common.

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