Bumper year for bee orchids, share your sightings

17 July 2012

The UK may have had some record-breaking rain in the last few months, but summer-flowering orchids are flourishing, and it’s a good time to try and spot them.

Although they are among the rarest of the UK's wild flowers, some species of orchids are becoming more common, such as the eye-catching bee orchid. As the UK's climate warms, it has been spreading northwards and you may now even find them in southern Scotland.

Pyramidal orchid seems to be doing well this year.

The pyramidal orchid seems to be doing well this year.

As its name suggests the flowers of the bee orchid mimic the body of a bee feeding on a flower. Male bees try to mate with it and unwittingly pollinate the orchid by transferring pollen to the female parts of the next flower they visit. However, in the UK, bee orchids are generally self-pollinated.

Bee orchids usually grow on dry, grassy slopes with chalky or sandy soil. They are also found in places where there is nutrient-poor soil such as roadsides and old industrial sites.

Has rain helped or hindered?

Orchids seem to have done well this year, growing in greater abundance than usual. So has the copious rain helped? Natural History Museum plant expert Fred Rumsey from the Identification and Advisory Service (IAS) thinks probably not, since bee orchids and their relatives prefer warm and dry conditions and are more common in Mediterranean regions.

Rumsey adds, 'All this wet weather encourages molluscs that munch on orchids and it also causes a growth in the rank grass that swamps them!

Wasp orchid Ophrys apifera variety trollii

Wasp orchid, Ophrys apifera variety trollii. This is one of the more unusual forms and should still be flowering.

'I think it is more likely the mild winter and warmth earlier this spring that have had the major effect'.

Pyramidal orchid

Another orchid to look out for in the last few weeks of its flowering is the pyramidal orchid. This pretty pink-flowered species grows on chalk and limestone grasslands and on coastal dunes all around the British coast but like the bee orchid is increasingly found by roadsides and on brownfield sites. It too would seem to be having a bumper year says Rumsey.

Rarer orchids

Unlike the bee orchid that can self-pollinate, the other Ophrys species in Britain, the spider orchids and the fly orchid, rely on bees for pollination. They are rarer and declining in the UK and so you would be lucky to spot them. Both early and late spider orchids are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Help record orchid sightings

The distribution of many of our orchids like the bee orchid is changing fast and records of some of its stranger forms are needed. You can help by letting scientists know when you have seen any, using the Museum's ID forums, where you can upload photos and discuss what you have seen with experts. 

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