I think that, if there is one plant that everybody wants to see at Sheskinmore, it’s the fabled Bee Orchid (Ophris apifera). Michele and I were at Sheskinmore today (02.07.17) and went back to the place we’d seen some growing two weeks ago; there was still one in bloom.
It has been nearly 10 years since I last saw Bee Orchids at Sheskinmore; that year I saw hundreds. But since then, all I’ve heard were rumours that one had been seen here, or maybe it was there… but no further success until this year. It is something of a mystery how they can disappear for years, and then miraculously reappear. It is puzzling until you know a wee bit about its life cycle.
The seeds of orchids are tiny and, unlike the seeds of other plants, they contain almost no food reserves. Their seeds do not germinate until they become infected with a soil-dwelling fungus known as mycorrhiza. Most of the fungi in this group are saprophytic, that is they live on the organic remains of plant material that is present in the soil (humus). More rarely the mycorrhizal fungus can be parasitic, as in the case of Early Purple Orchid and the Lady’s Slipper. Their mycorrhiza, belong to the group of fungi known as the Honey Fungi.
Once the seeds have been infected with the appropriate mycorrhiza, germination and development are very slow. Leaves may not appear until the second, third or even subsequent years. During all of this period, the developing orchid is sustained by the mycorrhiza. Even after the appearance of leaves, it may be several years before flowers are formed. The period from germination to flowering varies considerably; species such as the Marsh Orchid can flower after only five years while it may take sixteen or more years before the Lady’s Slipper blooms. This prolonged period from germination to flower formation would account for the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of particular species of orchids in various places.
Getting back to the Bee Orchid… another aspect of this orchid’s lifecycle is equally fascinating; it’s a story of Mimicry and Deceit!
To certain male Bees (drones), the flowers of this little plant look like and smell like a Queen Bee. Not being too bright, it will attempt to mate with the flower and in the process he gets covered in pollen. The same thing happens with the next Bee Orchid he encounters… and the next!
Pollen from earlier encounters is passed to later flowers, and so the Cross-fertilisation of the flowers takes place. The flowers get what they want and the bee is just left with the feeling that he always chooses the wrong woman!
Identifying Bee Orchids is easy but, for anyone trying to identify many of the other orchids at Sheskinmore, there can be quite a number of problems. One is the annoying habit of some species to hybridise with others. With human beings there can be considerable difference in skin colour, body size and in the shape of the head and body. Yet we are all the same species. With orchids there can be extreme variation in the colour and shape the flowers within the same species. Some of these differences can be due to regional differences in the gene pool; others can be due to differences in the mineral composition of the soil and growing conditions.