Rather unexpectedly but much to everyone’s delight, a bee orchid has made a surprise appearance in the lawn at work. This rather exotic looking plant, with its highly specialised flowers, delivers a sense of rarity, even though it is an adaptable and widespread species within southern Britain. The area around the plant has been taped off to reduce the chances of its bloom being crushed by an ill-placed foot and its photograph has even been posted on Twitter.
The adaptability of the bee orchid means that it can be found across a range of grassland habitats, though favoured sites are usually on light and well-drained soils, often low in nutrients. A garden lawn is not an uncommon site for what is one of the most spectacular of our orchids, perhaps because it is tolerant of trampling.
Flowering from late May or, more usually, early June, the blooms are well worth looking at in detail. Each flower resembles a bee, and the broad, maroon-brown lip has a three-dimensional shape that perfectly mimics the rear of a bee in the act of visiting the flower. This mimicry evolved to attract male bees to act as pollinators but it appears to have been largely abandoned and most bee orchids are now self-pollinated. Self-pollination is an effective strategy, resulting in the formation of as many as ten thousand microscopic seeds. Individual plants may live for a decade or more following their initial ‘appearance’, perhaps even managing to flower several years in a row. In other years they may remain dormant underground or appear above ground but fail to put up a flowering stalk. This suggests that they need to build up a certain level of resources before they are able to produce a flowering spike.
Finding your own colony of bee orchids requires a little bit of detective work, either to identify potential sites by looking for poor, often chalky, soils where there is bare ground or an open sward structure, or by searching the internet for information on where they have been seen this season. They are well worth catching up with and there is a good chance that once you have seen one, your interest in our orchids will bloom.