Bee orchids can be found on the new dunes at the front of Tramore in June and into July. They tend to favour the east facing slopes, away from the sea breezes. This year I have been following the development of the seed heads, which contain some of the smallest plant seeds known to man.
This photo was taken on 31st May 2014, quite early for bee orchids.
It takes several years for the dune face to develop the right conditions for the bee orchid seeds to germinate and grow. They need a certain fungi in the soil, as well as good drainage and calcium from blown, shelly sand. These astounding and beautiful plants seem to produce a shorter stem and fewer flowers per stem than their more cosseted relations growing on mainland Britain and Europe, hardly surprising, given the windy, cooler conditions on the Atlantic coast.
The imitation bee-shaped flower demonstrates mimicry, a strategy designed to attract pollinating insects. It seems obvious now that the plant uses its shape and smell to attract the right sort of insect, a bee, but when Charles Darwin wrote about these orchids, after publishing The Origin of Species, the notion that the plants evolved this specific strategy was revolutionary. Darwin studied the bee and butterfly orchid species growing on the chalk downlands around his home, even covering some with bell jars to study the effect of denying access to insects. I find it interesting that great naturalists and scientists such as Darwin Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden, and the Belfast based R L Praegar, studied the same curious things, sea beans and orchids, that we can find in the environs of Sheskinmore.
This photo shows the seed pod and flower on the bee orchid later in the summer. The pod has thousands of tiny seeds which are dispersed by the wind.The quantity of seeds increases the chance that some may land in suitable conditions for germination and growth.
The same seed pod, shown later in the month, using a Golden Crisp bar for scale only! No bee orchids were injured in the production of this post but the Golden Crisp was consumed later. The specific bee does not occur in Ireland so most of the work, the cross pollination, is done by the wind, a resource in abundance in Donegal sand dunes. The Donegal breeze seems to both pollinate and disperse the bee orchid here.
I hope to record the seed pods again in the next few weeks, to check for size and/or explosion.