Bee orchids have small flowers, short stems and, in meadowland, are easily missed. They are also rare, protected and are seen as one of nature’s great mimics with flowers that have an uncanny likeness their insect namesake. If put together as a rectangle, our garden in France, with its orchard, spinney, fruit and vegetable patches, lawns and ‘wild’ areas, would cover a football pitch. It is on this ‘pitch’ that bee orchids have recently begun to appear – first one, now five.
This story, and with it my introduction to the species Ophrys apifera, began a year ago. Yann, our otherwise undemonstrative gardener, asked if we could meet – he had something important to say. When we are away he keeps the ‘pitch’ ticking over; when we are there, he does the heavy work that our ages now preclude. His opening sentence was alarming – ”Something terrible happened yesterday … ” The day before we arrived he was strimming the long grass bordering one of our lawns. Out of the corner of his eye he caught site of an orchid but it was too late – within seconds he had cut through its stem and destroyed most of its flowers. There was now nothing left save its base, but Yann insisted we see where the plant had once been. He had placed stones around the site to mark it out for next year and, with Yann close to tears, it was as if we were standing over a grave.
He was adamant that we should keep details of the discovery a secret. He was sure our orchid would re-grow. A flower as rare as this would certainly be targeted by would-be orchid poachers and, recently, their likes had been increasingly active.
Yann has helped us for several years and he is not only a most proficient gardener, but also a committed environmentalist with a deep respect, even love, for nature. On his watch there was to be no use of pesticides or insecticides, and if ever we proposed making a change in the garden that might interfere with the local wildlife balance, the proposal might be refused or delayed – “Branches with berries are not to be pruned till birds have had their fill”. He had only ever seen one bee orchid before so Yann took cutting it down as a personal tragedy.
Twelve months on and Yann sent us an email – last year’s severed orchid had regrown and had now been joined by four others. He was overjoyed and explained where we could find them and how, for security’s sake, he had used anonymous-looking twigs to mark them out.
Of the five plants, only two were now sporting their wonderful flowers (see my illustration), and seeing them had me scampering to the web to discover more. Last year, as there was nothing to see, I had no urge to enquire. It soon became clear that this little orchid is not only widely loved; it is also invested with a coquettish relationship with bees; in this capacity it has even been dubbed one of nature’s great ‘sexual deceivers’.
London’s Natural History Museum writes: “Bee orchids mimic the shape and scent of bees in order to lure them into pseudocopulation, where the male insect attempts to mate with the flower”. The overall picture painted on the web is that males, excited by the belief that they have found a queen all alone, alight on the petals and, with masculine fervour, agitate them and so help promote pollination. However, in all this storytelling there are some important oversights. What may have worked in the distant past when the forces of evolution were particularly busy, nowadays appears misplaced. First, finding a solitary queen is most unlikely. Second, it is actually female workers, not the males, who do the foraging and for them, copulating with a queen is unlikely to be a priority. Third, it so happens that the bee orchid is self-pollinating so has no need for help from outsiders. Finally there is an irony; this particular orchid produces no nectar, so the bee’s returns for its endeavours are limited to the pollen.
Mother Nature has been her usual ingenious self in producing the bee orchid with its mimicry; we are delighted to be playing host to her ingenious work of art. But, over the years, things have moved on and, while the plant is treasured, even becoming a collectable, in nature the mimicry no longer serves its purpose. However, being out-of-date is not such an uncommon feature in evolution. After all, many of the our illnesses result from our bodies clinging to redundant solutions which actually make things worse. But more of that another time.