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The magic of the bee orchid

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Please join your local wildlife trust today

Posted: Friday 18th May 2018 by bbowtblog

bee orchidsBee orchids by John Morris

I love the bee orchid - mimic, shape-shifter, one of nature’s marvels

Barbara MustonWritten by Barbara Muston

Chair of Trustees, BBOWT



I love the bee orchid - mimic, shapeshifter, one of nature’s marvels.

More mysterious than the blousy pyramidal and common spotted orchids, which spread themselves with gay abandon across my garden, I never know where or whether the bee will appear but when I find it blooming in all its exotic splendour, it’s a source of sheer delight.

The spikes of flowers, with between two and seven blooms, are magical; three pink sepals, striped with green, form a triangular frame for the main attraction, the furry maroon lip, the ‘body’ of the bee which, in some examples, is figured with delicate yellow tracery.

Two small, hairy, brown protuberances form the ‘bee’s knees’ then just above, two tiny, pale pink petals form its ‘antennae’, sitting below what appears to be the neck and head of a green duck, from which dangle two tiny balls of yellow pollen.

Wow! I always thought it had evolved to attract male bees, which, mistaking the flower for their true love, would attempt to mate and thus pollinate the flowers but it transpires that they’re self-pollinating, so the bee is a bit of a joker too!

bee orchids

My garden, on the northern scarp of the Chilterns, is essentially a strip of chalk grassland and it was there that I first encountered the bee - just the odd one, carefully marked for protection from the mower and sought out again each spring.

But then I discovered its wayward habits; having appeared for several seasons in the same place, it disappears, only to pop up somewhere completely different, repeating the process again after a few more years.

Now I know that the leaves, pointed and greyish-green, show themselves in October or November, so that’s when I go, twigs in hand, eyes down, to find where they will be the following spring.

This year, my front garden has a veritable forest of twig markers and I’m looking forward to a splendid show in May and June. The flowers stand for several weeks then slowly wither until, in August, the seed pods are dry and ready to scatter their dust-like seed and keep me guessing where the bee will be next year.

Barbara Muston

Discover more about our wild orchids with our guided walks and talk by Leif Bersweden, author of The Orchid Hunter: a young botanists search for happiness (Short Books, 2017)

Find the best reserves for wild orchids


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