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Ophrys apifera is an attractive orchid with several small flowers, each of which has three large, pink, petal-like outer tepals, a large lip (labellum; modified inner tepal) resembling a bee, and two other inner tepals that look like antennae. The whole flower thus mimics an insect. 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 that resemble their insect pollinators.

Ophrys apifera (bee orchid)

[KSP]

Kew Species Profiles

General Description

Ophrys apifera is an attractive orchid with several small flowers, each of which has three large, pink, petal-like outer tepals, a large lip (labellum; modified inner tepal) resembling a bee, and two other inner tepals that look like antennae. The whole flower thus mimics an insect. 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 that 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, O. apifera is generally self-pollinated; the pollinia, which hang on a thread, are blown against the receptive surface of the stigma.

Species Profile
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.

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.

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

Distribution
United Kingdom
Ecology
Dry, open, grassy slopes; usually on limestone or calcareous sand, but also frequently on industrial waste ground, quarries and gravel pits.
Conservation
Locally common.
Hazards

None known.

[O-EM]
General Description

Plant slender, (15-)20-50(-70) cm tall with (2-)3-12(-17) flowers in a (relatively) lax spike. Sepals violet to white, narrowly ovate to lanceolate-oblong, 11-17 × 5-9 mm; dorsal sepal boat-shaped, straight to slightly incurved, from the base reflexed. Petals yellowish green to rose-coloured, sometimes suffused with red, triangular (often auriculate) with recurved margins, 1-3(-7) × 1(-2) mm, shaggy, spreading. Lip with (dark) brown ground colour, straight with strongly recurved margin, deeply (to moderately) three-lobed close to the base, 8-14 × 10-16 mm, velvety to shaggy along the margin (otherwise nearly glabrous); side lobes converted into obliquely conical bulges; mid-lobe much longer than the side lobes, rounded, provided with a downward pointing, more or less rectangular to rhomboid appendage (often hidden under the strongly vaulted lip); mirror distinct (rarely obscure), consisting of a more or less H-shaped or often slightly more complicated figure, the basal arms of which are connected to the base of the lip (occasionally, there are also a few isolated markings towards the apex), dull greyish violet with a cream border. Column extended into a sigmoidly curved apex, not tapering towards the base (in side view); stigmatic cavity approximately as wide as long and approximately twice as wide as the anther, with dark, lateral, eye-like knobs at base; pollinia with flaccid stalks.

Habitat

Dry to wet calcareous soil in full sunlight to light shade, from sea level to 1800 m altitude. Typical habitats include edges of woods, open deciduous forest and pine woods, garrigue and grassland as well as open reed swamps and stabilised coastal dunes. Additionally, it is frequently seen as a pioneer plant in places such as recently abandoned quarries, railway embankments and roadside verges.

Distribution

Throughout the Mediterranean, including the Levant, and in Atlantic western Europe north to the British Isles, Holland and Denmark.

[KSP]
Use
None known.

Native to:

Albania, Algeria, Austria, Baleares, Belgium, Bulgaria, Corse, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East Aegean Is., France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Kriti, Krym, Lebanon-Syria, Libya, Morocco, Netherlands, North Caucasus, Palestine, Portugal, Romania, Sardegna, Sicilia, Spain, Switzerland, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkey-in-Europe, Yugoslavia

English
Bee orchid

Ophrys apifera Huds. appears in other Kew resources:

Date Reference Identified As Barcode Type Status
United Kingdom 144.000
Goddard, A., United Kingdom 145.000
Howton, B.M., United Kingdom 146.000
Ryan, P.J., Ireland 20378.000
Syngrassides, A. [1527], Cyprus 20379.000
Jones, E., United Kingdom 20381.000
Bruce, E.A., United Kingdom 20746.000
Holland, S., United Kingdom 28188.000
Livingston, A. 28722.000
Watson, J.M. [190], Turkey 29290.000
Stokoe, R., Spain 30538.000
Wood, J.J. [97], Cyprus 38923.000
Wood, J.J. [261], Greece 39349.000
St. White, R., Cyprus 42814.000
Ross-Craig, S., United Kingdom 45594.000
Wood, J.J. [551], France 45884.000
Clements, M.A. [2614], Greece 48311.000
Joseph, J. [239], Spain 48336.000
Wood, J.J. [772], Cyprus 50106.000
United Kingdom 5797.000
Summerhayes, V.S. [1920], United Kingdom 5799.000
Milne-Redhead, E., United Kingdom 5800.000
Melville, R., United Kingdom 5802.000
MFF [MFF 312] 70405.000
MWC [MWC 10248] 70515.000
Chase [13839], United Kingdom 71067.000
s.coll. [s.n.] K000363963
Chase [34549], Italy 78216.000
Trevelyan, W.C. [s.n.], Portugal K000363964
Chase [34550], Italy 78215.000
Smith, A.R. [650627/5], Great Britain K000970105
Ettlinger, D.M.T. [s.n.], United Kingdom Ophrys apifera var. belgarum 61181.000 neotype
Ettlinger, D.M.T. [s.n.], United Kingdom Ophrys apifera var. belgarum K000718367 neotype
Prescot, J. [182] Ophrys arachnites K000363922
Jacquin [s.n.], Germany Ophrys arachnites K000363921

First published in Fl. Angl.: 340 (1762)

Accepted by

  • Castroviejo, S. & al. (eds.) (2005). Flora Iberica 21: 1-366. Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC, Madrid.
  • Curtis, T. & Thompson, R. (2009). The orchids of Ireland: 1-160. National Museums of Northern Ireland, Cultra, Holywood.
  • Dimopoulos, P., Raus, T., Bergmeier, E., Constantinidis, T., Iatrou, G., Kokkini, S., Strid, A., & Tzanoudakis, D. (2013). Vascular plants of Greece. An annotated checklist: 1-372. Botanic gardens and botanical museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin and Hellenic botanical society, Athens.
  • Dobignard, D. & Chatelain, C. (2010). Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 1: 1-455. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève.
  • Fateryga, A.V. & al. (2018). https://doi.org/10.14258/turczaninowia.21.4.2 epublication.
  • Faurholdt, N. & Pedersen, H.Æ. (2009). Flueblomster fra Marokko til Mellemøsten: 1-122. Dansk Orchide Klub og forfatterne.
  • G.I.R.O.S. (2009). Orchidee d'Italia: 1-303. Il Castello srl, Italy.
  • Galán Cela, P. & Gamarra, R. (2003). Check List of the Iberian and Balearic Orchids 2 Anales del Jardin Botanico de Madrid 60: 309-329.
  • Govaerts, R. (2003). World Checklist of Monocotyledons Database in ACCESS: 1-71827. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Hadinec, J. & Lustyk, P. (2017). Additamenta ad floram Reipublicae Bohemicae. XV. Zprávy Ceské Botanické Spolecnosti 52: 37-133.
  • Kühn, R., Pedersen, H.Æ. & Cribb, v (2019). Field Guide to the Orchids of Europe and the Mediterranean: 1-430. Kew Publishing, England.
  • Pedersen, H.Æ. & Faurholdt, N. (2007). Ophrys. The Bee Orchids of Europe: 1-297. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Takhtajan, A.L. (ed.) (2006). Konspekt Flora Kavkaza 2: 1-466. Editio Universitatis Petropolitanae.
  • Vladimirov, V., Dane, F., Matevski, V. & Kit Tan (2014). New floristic records in the Balkans: 25 Phytologia Balcanica 20: 267-310.
  • Vázquez Pardo, F.M. (2009). Revisión de la familia Orchidaceae en Extremadura (España) Folia Botanica Extremadurensis 3: 1-367.

Literature

Kew Species Profiles

  • 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.
  • World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kew Backbone Distributions

  • Faurholdt, N. & Pedersen, H.Æ. (2009). Flueblomster fra Marokko til Mellemøsten: 1-122. Dansk Orchide Klub og forfatterne.
  • Pedersen, H.Æ. & Faurholdt, N. (2007). Ophrys. The Bee Orchids of Europe: 1-297. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Vladimirov, V., Dane, F., Matevski, V. & Kit Tan (2014). New floristic records in the Balkans: 25 Phytologia Balcanica 20: 267-310.

Herbarium Catalogue Specimens
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Kew Backbone Distributions
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Science Photographs
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Kew Species Profiles
Kew Species Profiles
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0

Orchideae: e-monocot.org
All Rights Reserved
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