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Bee Orchid
Ophrys apifera

The Bee Orchid, with its uncanny resemblance to a Bumblebee, is probably our best-known orchid, fostering a curiosity in the natural world seldom achieved by other plants. The ability of Ophrys apifera to spread and adapt to new sites and habitats has, to some extent, mitigated its decline due to the loss and destruction of its more traditional habitats. The Bee Orchid's habit of 'popping up' somewhere unexpected (including in peoples' gardens) adds to the delicious mystery that surrounds a species seems to demonstrate evolution in such an unequivocal way. Only the plants that resemble closely enough the insects that could act as pollinators survive? In reality (and particularly in the case of Bee Orchids in Britain) this has now proven not always to be the case: most of our Bee Orchid plants are self-pollinated. This results in another thought-provoking feature of Bee Orchids - the frequency with which strange variations occur in the flowers. The Bee Orchid's adaptability to new sites makes listing its habitats a lengthy task, but this orchid is known to occur on roadside verges, in sand dune systems, unimproved grassland, abandoned mines and quarries, to name but a few. In Britain and Ireland Bee Orchids flower from early June to late July. Ophrys apifera is mainly found in southern Britain and peters out towards the north, where it is found in Lancashire and Cumbria. Elsewhere in Europe this species is found as far north as Holland and Germany and its range extends southwards to the Mediterranean region.

Distribution Map Key Features
distribution map

Records for the Bee Orchid from BSBI are shown on the map with most recent in front. (Hover the mouse over the small map to expand it.)

CLICK HERE to visit the BSBI website page for updated data and maps with separated data for individual record periods

Plant: 10 - 60cm, commonly up to 45cm.
Leaves: up to 6 pale green basal leaves, which are keeled and strap-shaped, becoming narrower and more pointed higher up where they loosely sheath the stem.
Bracts: pale green and lanceolate.
Flowers: each stem holds up to 12 flowers, although plants with up to 7 flowers per stem are more common. The sepals, which are various shades of pink, are oval and taper towards their tips. (Occasionally the sepals are white.) The lateral sepals are horizontal and often swept backwards, and the upper sepal is vertical. The greenish to pink-brown petals are much smaller than the sepals, while the brown and velvety lip is broad and rounded with two small and conical side lobes. The tip of the lip has a small pointed 'nib' in a shallow notch. The speculum (mirror) radiates from a semicircular dull orange area at the lip base and is edged with yellow bands that form a U- or H-shape.

Image Gallery for Bee Orchid Ophrys apifera

Pollination Taxonomy & Hybrids

Bee Orchid flowers are usually self-pollinated within hours of the flowers opening when the pollinia (the pollen-bearing structures) fall forward in front of the stigma. The structure of the pollina is so fragile that the slighest breeze blows them on to the sticky surface of the stigma and pollination is achieved.

The Bee Orchid belongs to the Ophrys genus. Its scientific name derives from the Latin words 'apis' and 'fero' meaning 'bee-bearing'.

There are no subspecies, but there is considerable variation in the flowers: Ophrys apifera var. trollii, referred to as the Wasp Orchid, has a long tapering lip with a yellow and rust-coloured marbled lip. Ophrys apifera var. belgarum has an oval lip and symmetrical markings in brown and yellow with a distinct yellow bar across the middle. Ophrys apifera var. chlorantha lacks anthocyanin pigments and has white sepals and a bright green lip with faint markings. Ophrys apifera var. bicolor has a lip that is colour-divided with the lower half being light brown and the upper half much paler. Ophrys apifera var. fulvofusca has an unmarked lip.

Articles about Bee Orchid in JHOS