Reproductive Mimicry & the Bee Orchid

A Morning Stroll

After a dawn bat survey at the end of May this year, we stopped by Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve for a stroll. The early morning is a wonderful time to watch wildlife with the dawn light bringing out the best in the landscape. We had gone there to see the birds, but this bee orchid caught our eye.

Click to zoom in

We’ve been hoping to see one for a long time now. We’d even driven out to locations specifically to see them, but had never had any luck. Sometimes what you’re looking for comes when you’re not looking at all!

The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Order: Asparagales
Family: Orchidaceae
Genus: Ophrys
Species: O. apifera

Where does the bee orchid get its name from?

The name “Ophrys” comes from the Greek word ophrys, meaning “eyebrow”.
The Latin species name “apifera” means “bee-bearing” or “bee-bringing” and refers to the bee-shaped lip of the orchid.

What does it look like?

The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) is a hardy flower, growing to a height of 15–50 centimetres (6–20 in). It is variable in the pattern of its colouration, but usually brownish-red with yellow markings.

Click to zoom in

When does it flower?

In the Autumn, it develops small rosettes of leaves. They continue to grow slowly during winter. It then blooms during Spring and Summer from mid-April to July producing a spike with one to twelve flowers.

Where is it found?

It is widespread across central and southern Europe, as well as North Africa and the Middle East. Its range stretches from Portugal, Ireland and Denmark east to Iran and the Caucasus.

It is quite common in the Mediterranean region eastwards to the Black Sea, but is less common in its northern range being uncommon or local in Germany and Ireland. In the UK, it has a distinct southeastern preference, being more common in England (where we observed our specimen).

Ophrys apifera [BEE ORCHID] Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve, England 31-05-2018 Zoomology (8)Click to zoom in

What kind of habitat does it live in?

It generally grows on semi-dry turf, in grassland, on limestone, calcareous dunes or in open areas in woodland. It prefers calcareous soils, in bright light or dim light. It is a major coloniser of old quarries and roadside verges.

Ophrys apifera [BEE ORCHID] Portbury Wharf Nature Reserve, England 31-05-2018 Zoomology (6)Click to zoom in

How does it reproduce?

Ophrys apifera is the only species of the genus Ophrys which prefers to practice self-pollination. “Self-pollination” is when a flower is pollinated by pollen from the same flower or from another flower on the same plant. The flowers are almost exclusively self-pollinating in the northern ranges of the plant’s distribution, including the UK.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

In the Mediterranean area, however, the orchid is pollinated by the solitary bee, Eucera. In this case the plant attracts the bee by producing a scent that mimics the scent of the female. The lip of the flower also acts as a decoy which makes the male bee confuse it for a female. Pollen transfer occurs during the ensuing pseudocopulation (when the male attempts to mate with the flower). This is known as reproductive mimicry.

The Natural History Mueseum has a great video talking about the mechanics of Ophrys apifera pollination and British specimens. You can watch it here:

To see pseudocopulation in action, see this dated yet very charming video clip from nature cinematographer, Doron Hirshberg, from his 1987 BBC production, “Symphony of Magic: The Wild Orchids in Israel”.

It was such a treat for Tom and I to spot these bee orchids. Nature never ceases to surprise us! In fact, we definitely have a soft spot for all orchids and their multitude of forms. We have written about some of our other orchid-adventures previously on our blog.

Want to Check Out Another Zoomology Orchid Adventure?

See this blog post in which Tom shares his experience surveying New Zealand’s critically endangered Greenhood Orchid:

greenhood orchid survey

Check out this blog post in which we see how many British orchids we can find and photograph on a roadside verge in England:

Zoomology - British Orchids in Bloom

References and Further Reading

The Guardian – The Bee Orchid: Natures Mimic – How to grown a bee orchid in your lawn. –
(Retrieved 23 August, 2018)

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora – Bee Orchid –
(Retrieved 11 August, 2018)

Plantlife – Bee Orchid –
(Retrieved 11 August, 2018)

Wildflower Finder – Bee Orchid –
(Retrieved 11 August, 2018)

The Wildlife Trusts – Bee Orchid –
(Retrieved 11 August, 2018)



6 Comments Add yours

    1. Zoomology says:

      They were a pretty awesome find!


      Liked by 1 person

    1. Zoomology says:

      Aren’t they just?! Nature is amazing.


      Liked by 1 person

  1. Amazing plant, and wonderful photos and videos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zoomology says:

      Thank you, Tanja! We really enjoyed learning about and observing this species, too.


      Liked by 1 person

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