Wildlife Column: Making a bee-line for the orchids

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Nature is nothing if not inventive, and the bee orchid is just one example of amazing adaptation. This stunning flower has the scientific name of Ophrys apifera, which roughly translates as ‘bee bearing’.

The orchid flowers have evolved to look like the female of a particular species of bee, but one only found in continental Europe. The orchid flower ‘tricks’ male bees into attempting to mate with the apparent female, and in the process the male part of the flower, containing the pollen, transfers to the bee. This is then carried on a structure a little like an old-fashioned children’s toy arrow with a rubber sucker, to subsequent female flowers which the bee visits – simple isn’t it? In Britain without the bees however, the plant self-pollinates which clearly works but might incur longer-term evolutionary problems of in-breeding.

The orchid has evolved to look like a female species of a bee

The plant is a perennial and may take several years to grow to maturity. Bee orchids have generally declined but in some places are on the up.

They are less common in the north but I get the feeling that bee orchids have picked up in our area. Limestone grasslands east of Sheffield around Maltby Common or Anston Stones Wood are good places to look. However, closer to Sheffield and the Peak, they are doing well on some roadside verges and other ‘unimproved’ grasslands. In recent years, site management works by the Eastern Moors Partnership seem to have done the business for a population near to Barbrook Reservoir and the orchids are thriving. Whatever they are doing has hit the spot and the pastures there look better by the year. Similarly, the National Trust has meadows behind the Grouse Inn at Froggatt and they too are looking good with common spotted and southern marsh orchids in abundance.

I was walking in Graves Park and found a single specimen of a woodland orchid, the common or broad-leaved helleborine Epipactis helleborine. This is unusual in being both late-flowering and also favouring rather shady, bare woodland areas. Also, it is worth checking out Woodhouse Washlands Nature Reserve which is another local site for bee orchids. Let me know what you find!

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues