The elusive Bee Orchid shows itself
It’s high time I continued the story begun in last week’s post Here Be Dragons. Did I find any Bee Orchids? I hadn’t meant to tease but yes, yes I did! As you can see from the pictures here, I saw some beauties.
To recap… after bumping into wildlife photographer David Cottridge beside the pond on Tottenham Marshes, he offered to show me where the rumoured Ophrys apiphera, or Bee Orchid, was flowering. I had been there once before on a fruitless search so I was thrilled to bits that this time I would not be disappointed! I was led to a small area of open meadow which had obviously been mown at some point; the grass was shorter and the undergrowth sparser in general – perfect Orchid habitat. How had I not spotted this admittedly modest clearing before? And there they were. I didn’t spot the first one; not knowing quite what to expect David had to point it out to me.
The flowers are a little bit smaller than I’d imagined, about the size of a thumbnail. It doesn’t matter that I have a field guide, somehow the measurements never sink in when I read them and taking the name of the plant literally, I’d been on the lookout for something perhaps the size of a large bumblebee. There is a fairly good reason why I made this error though, and it has to do with this plant’s fascinating and bizarre method of reproduction.
The Bee Orchid is a shameless mimic, and what it mimics as you might guess is bees. It imitates female bees of a particular species right down to the scent it gives off, which to a male bee is as convincing and seductive as his intended mate would be. The Bee Orchid’s flower also looks, to a bee at least, very much like a prospective female. Sadly the Bee Orchid which is native to the UK mostly flaunts it’s flowers and scent in vain; it is thought that the original bee which it was trying to seduce is extinct, but I’ve read that bees of a different species will occasionally be mistaken. But why is the plant bothering to do this in the first place?
Take a look at the above picture. The bloom on the left has what looks like a little yellow ball hanging from it’s hood, in fact there are two of these and they are called pollinia. Pollinia are dense packages of pollen, and to set seed the orchid needs some way of transmitting their pollinia to other plants. So imagine – the excited bee lands on the flower and attempts to mate with it, at which point
“a curved column that houses both male and female plant organs descends from the top of the orchid and glues a pair of pollinia to his head. If the next orchid he visits has already dispatched it’s pollinia, then the column will pick up the one he carries and the orchid is fertilised” (pg 126, The Private Life Of Plants, David Attenborough)
This little plant is luring the hapless bee on a false promise of sexual bliss in order to have it’s own reproductive needs met. Or it would be, if any bees were answering it’s scented call. UK bee orchids, bereft of their original pollinator are luckily able to pollinate themselves so it’s a good job I hadn’t sat down in the grass expecting to see this drama enacted, because I’d have been there still.
Back to the little clearing, and David and I were tiptoeing about in the grass trying to find the perfect angle for a picture. There were several flower spikes and each spike had flowers slightly different from the others – it seems they are vary variable. David pointed out the one pictured above as being particularly striking. The area the orchids were flowering in has been mown for the last couple of years as a traditional hay meadow by Friends Of Tottenham Marshes in an attempt to encourage wildflowers; apparently these orchids had shown their heads the very first year this was done.