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Ophrys apifera (bee orchid)

The striking flowers of the bee orchid resemble a bee, resting on a pink flower.

Bee orchid flowers

Ophrys apifera at Kew Gardens

Species information

Scientific name: 

Ophrys apifera Huds.

Common name: 

bee orchid

Conservation status: 

Locally common.

Habitat: 

Dry, open, grassy slopes; usually on limestone or calcareous sand, but also frequently on industrial waste ground, quarries and gravel pits.

Key Uses: 

None known.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Asparagales
Family: 
Orchidaceae
Genus: Ophrys

About this species

Ophrys apifera is an attractive orchid with several small flowers, each of which has a lip resembling a bee, and three large, pink, petal-like outer sepals; the two other inner sepals look like antennae. The whole flower thus mimics an insect feeding on a flower. In biology, the term ‘mimicry’ refers to cases where natural selection has favoured a resemblance between individuals of different species, and there are numerous examples of orchid flowers which resemble their insect pollinators.

In other Ophrys species in the Mediterranean region, for example, male bees or wasps try to copulate with the lip of the flowers, which look and smell like the females of their own species. However, in Britain and generally elsewhere, the bee orchid, is self-pollinated and the pollinia, which hang on a thread, are blown against the receptive surface of the stigma.

Synonym: 

Orchis apifera, Arachnites apifera

Genus: 
Ophrys

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Native to Europe, where it occurs In Great Britain, Ireland and the Mediterranean eastwards to the Caucasus, across Turkey to northern Iran, the Middle East and North Africa. In Britain the bee orchid is found as far north as County Durham and Cumbria, but it is more abundant in the south and east. It is scattered throughout Ireland, but here it has declined since the 1930s as a result of the ploughing of grasslands.

The minute seeds are produced in thousands and can blow several kilometres, so bee orchids can appear unexpectedly, especially in exposed ground such as on road cuttings, quarries and other industrial sites, often on chalk or limestone soil (although not exclusively so).

Description

The tubers are rounded. The leaves are mainly in a basal rosette, which appears in the autumn. The stems are up to 50 cm tall, with usually around six (but up to 14) flowers. The sepals are pink or whitish and are 12–16 mm long. The petals are narrow, green or purplish, velvety and 5 mm long. The lip is three-lobed. The lateral lobes form hairy cones. The middle lobe is pointed and bent backwards to form the rounded body of the ‘bee’, and is brown with a dark, angular u-shape outlined in yellow.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Hand-coloured engraving of Ophrys apifera by William Curtis after a watercolour by William Kilburn (1777) taken from Flora Londinensis.

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Molecular research and bee orchids at Kew

The number of species of bee orchids (Ophrys species) that exist in Europe has been much-debated, and was the subject of a recent project funded by the John S. Lewis Foundation, involving Kew scientists Dion Devey and Mike Fay, working alongside partners Richard Bateman and Julie Hawkins (Reading University).

The team used a wide range of molecular and morphological techniques in their field study of bee orchid populations across the Mediterranean region. They could discriminate only ten species of Ophrys, even when they applied all the available diagnostic markers, and even then only six groups proved to be consistently recognisable. Morphological analyses also showed significant overlap between populations that had previously been assigned to different species.

The results of these studies will help scientists to prioritise populations more effectively for conservation. 

Find out more about Kew’s ‘Population Genetics of UK Orchids’ project

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: The tiny seeds are wind-dispersed.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Two.
Germination testing: 100 % germination was achieved on sterile Norstog media, at a temperature of 21 °C, on a cycle of 12 hours of daylight/12 hours darkness.

This species at Kew

Bee orchids have been planted in long grass alongside the path leading southwards from Elizabeth Gate at Kew. Look out for Saxifraga granulata (meadow saxifrage) and Salvia verbenaca (wild clary) in this area too, both of which are native British grassland species which have declined in numbers in the wild since the Second World War as a result of land use changes.

Alcohol-preserved and pressed and dried specimens of Ophrys apifera are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers, by appointment.

View details and images of specimens

An original painting of Ophrys apifera for Flora Londinensis (William Curtis, 1777), is held in the Library, Art and Archives at Kew.

References and credits

Devey, D. (2008). Ophrys: a case of the deceitful origin of species. Kew Scientist 33: 1. 

Devey, D.S., Bateman, R.M., Fay, M.F. & Hawkins, J.A. (2008). Friends or relatives? Phylogenetics and species delimitation in the controversial European orchid genus Ophrys. Ann. Bot. 101: 385-402.

Harrap, A. & Harrap, S. (2005). Orchids of Britain and Ireland: A Field and Site Guide. A & C Black, London.

Lang, D.C. (1991). A new variant of Ophrys apifera Hudson in Britain. Watsonia 18: 408-410.

Pedersen, H.A., & Faurholdt, N. (2007). Ophrys: The Bee Orchids of Europe. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. & Dines, T.A. (eds) (2002). New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora: An Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. (2008) Seed Information Database (SID). Version 7.1. Available online (accessed 4 April 2011).

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed 4 April 2011).

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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