Bee orchid Ophrys apifera

Status Green - Least concern
Best Time to See June, July
Colour
Habitat Grassland

"Pleasant and beautifull flowers, where with nature hath seemed to plaie and disport hir selfe."

- John Gerard, 17th Century botanist.

Description

Small but flamboyant, the bee orchid is one of nature's great mimics. Perched within the large pink sepals are petals shaped and coloured like a visiting bee. The pink sepals look like wings and there are furry, brown lips that have yellow markings just like a bee.

The deception goes further than visual appearance alone: as well emitting a female bee scent, the fake "bee" is hairy to touch.

The Bee Orchid is quite small and has a rosette of leaves at ground level. Two leaves grow up the stem as a sheath.

Where it grows

Open grassland on base-rich soil, such as chalk grasslands. Also banks, woodland rides and pastures. Bee orchids like a bit of disturbance – they can occur in disused quarries, sand dunes, mine spoil-heaps, on roadsides, railway embankments, even waste ground in towns. They can also occur on lawns, sometimes many miles from the nearest wild colony. They also inhabit damp places, such as damp, clayey meadows and shallow fens.

Best time to see

June and July when it flowers.

Cultural info

  • It is the County Flower of Bedfordshire.
  • In the Language of Flowers it stands for error and industry.

How's it doing?

Stable in mainland Britain but has declined in Ireland, mainly due to habitat destruction. Bee orchids are a protected species in Northern Ireland under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

Did you know?

  • The Latin specific epithet apifera means "bee-bearing" or "bee-bringing" and refers to the bee-shaped lip of the orchid. The aim of the mimicry is to attract passing male bees in the hope they will try to mate and thus aid pollination.
  • In Britain, however, bee orchids self-pollinate so the deception is not really required. This self-pollination may account for the high incidence of freaks or so-called monstrous forms. For instance, occasionally flowers with white sepals and unusual lip markings occur.
  • This wild flower was once called the "Humble Bee" orchid (Humble being a variation of Bumble). Other vernacular names include Bee-flower, Bumble bee, Dumble dor and Honey-flower.
  • The name "Ophrys" comes from the Greek word ophrys, meaning "eyebrow".According to Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder it was used by womenfolk to darken their eyebrows.
  • They sometimes behave like rampant weeds, appearing in large numbers on disturbed chalk grasslands.

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