Ophrys apifera - Bee Orchid

Scientific Name: Ophrys apifera. 'Ophrys' = Greek for 'eyebrow', a reference to the velvety labellum (lower petal); 'apifera' from the Latin for 'bee carrier', a reference to the form of the flowers.

English Name: Bee Orchid

French Name: Ophrys abeille (= Bee Ophrys)

5 Key Characters:
  • possibly the prettiest orchid to be commonly found in the area, brightly coloured and medium sized.
  • sepals large, usually bright pink, but can range from white or greenish white to almost red, and often bent backwards.
  • labellum (bottom petal or lip) oval with edges rolled back, velvety brown with a yellowish pattern, projecting lumps at the top corners and a yellow triangle at the bottom, usually hidden.
  • upper petals insignificant, thin, short, green or brownish (with the exception of some subspecies).
  • above the labellum is the green 'S' shaped column (reproductive parts), and the yellow pollen bundles (pollenia).
Lookalikes: Ophrys fuciflora. This species is much rarer in the area than O. apifera though, and only found in Indre, not the other two d├ępartements covered by this website. O. apifera is self-pollinating and very variable with many subspecies, as well as hybridising with many other Ophrys spp.

Habitat: Full sun on dry to temporarily flooded sites; grasslands of all sorts, waste ground and brownfield sites, crop margins and fallow land, meadows, scrub, woodland undergrowth, thickets, roadside banks, especially if the site is on limestone. Frequently colonises lawns, even in towns. Its tolerance for all sorts of conditions means that it can colonise very varied habitat, and is even found in the centre of Tours.

Flowering Period: May-June-July. One of the loveliest orchids in the area. The labellum imitates a female insect, a sexual lure emitting pheromones, to attract male longhorned bees (Eucera pulveracea or Tetralonia lucasi). The flower looks and feels like a female to these bees, and so they try to mate with it. The flower is able to dab the bee with pollen in the process, and it takes it off to other Bee Orchid plants, thereby fertilizing it. When this strategy works, there is an exchange of genetic material that keeps the descendents robust and adapted to local conditions. It does not always succeed though. The flower is receptive to cross pollination for only about 5-6 hours. After that, it 'panics' and self-pollinates. This narrowing of the gene pool gives rise to many anomalies and feeble plants. Self-pollination can result in petals that are pink rather than green, very long petals or hypochromatic specimens (where the pink pigments are missing and the flower is very pale).

Status: Fairly common in the '3 d├ępartements', but a subspecies, var. friburgensis (syn O. apifera subsp. jurana), with elongated lateral petals, similar to the sepals, is protected in Indre and Indre et Loire. Can be seen in Preuilly-sur-Claise and many sites within 5km of Preuilly. One of the best known of the Tourangelle orchids and one of the most widely distributed. Present in the Sologne. The number of plants in a colony can fluctuate greatly from year to year and colonies can disappear without there having been any change to the habitat. These sudden disappearances are the result of big colonies of less robust self-fertilized plants.

Recorded by Loire Valley Nature:

Link to article in Days on the Claise about Bee Orchids in the orchard.


May, in our orchard.
May, in our orchard.

A hypochromatic specimen, which has a mutation leaving it without pink pigment. Photographed near Panzoult.

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