The bee orchid is not a plant you are likely to spot growing in profusion along the side of the road as you zap about the country lanes of Poitou-Charentes. It is more likely to be spotted in a hedge bank when you are out on a walk, or growing in my overgrown lawn.
The French name for it is Ophrys abeille and its scientific name is Ophrys apifera
As I explained in my recent blog entitled Bees, bees, bees, we have this year about 6 bee orchids growing in our garden. No doubt they have been there for many years but in previous years the lawn has been mowed and so they have been denied the opportunity to flower. This year, however, mowing did not happen and so the lawn is a meadow but I do have bee orchids. You win some you lose some.
Bee orchids are an example of specialisation which can backfire. What I mean by this is that the flower has quite a complex design to ensure that it gets fertilised, but as a consequence it has narrowed down it’s options to such an extent that it is jeopardising the success of the mission. Basically a flower is there to get pollen from the anther to the stigma. effect fertilisation and thus produce seed. Some plants rely on the wind to do this and just produce masses of pollen which blows in the wind. Most of it gets wasted but some will end up on the stigmas. Simple but effective. Others use animals to do the transfer, mostly insects, especially bees, but for some flowers, such as a dandelion anything crawling across it could effect pollination, so it might be a bee but a slug or snail would be just as effective.
Some flowers produce nectar and then make it difficult to get at by having the nectar at the end of a long tube or spur, like foxgloves or honeysuckle. This ensures that only certain insects can get to the nectar and at the same time the flower ensures that the anthers are located just where the insect will brush up against them.
Bee orchids have taken this a step further. The flower looks like a bee – or at least it is supposed to. I can see some resemblance but evidently the male bee thinks it looks like a particularly attractive female bee and is attracted to do the business with the lady bee. In so doing not only does he get no satisfaction but he also gets the anthers stuck on his head….. note I said anthers, and not just a dab of pollen. The bee orchid has put all its eggs in one basket. It actually has what are called pollinia which are anthers which detach themselves very easily from the flower and stick to the head of a bee that is attempting to mate with the flower. It has two of these pollinia and they are in just the right place so that a certain species of bee will be exactly the right size to get them stuck on its head so in fact the flower does not look like any old bee but like one specific species which is the one which will be the right shape and size to get the pollinia on its head.
So – what happens next? Well, the bee obviously is still a bit fired up and when it sees another bee orchid flower which to him looks like a desirable female, off he goes again. By this time the pollinia have changed their orientation on top of his head and are now facing forward so as the bee is making his second attempt to get a bit of satisfaction the pollinia are now lined up with the female part of the flower and pollen is transferred. As you can see this is all highly specific and relies heavily on everything being in just the right position and on the bee being stupid enough to fancy a flower …twice! Of course it also depends on the right bee being around at the right time when the flower is in bloom and the pollinia are ripe.
I have never seen a bee showing any interest in a bee orchid flower and of course it would have to be a male bee or drone as the worker bees do not have any sexual inclination. Perhaps this is the reason why dandelions are far more common than bee orchids.
Here is a little slide show of some photos I have taken or the orchids in the garden, if you look carefully you can see some of the flowers have the yellow pollinia visible at the centre of the flower.
For other flowers of the month click the link below, previously in June the flowers of the month have been Collumbine and Dog Rose
To identify other flowers from this region click…