British distribution: Widespread but only very locally common in southern, central and eastern England, becoming much rarer in the north and west and in Wales. Very rare and sporadic in southern Scotland (usually in Galloway), sparse or under-recorded in Ireland.
The genus Ophrys is a large and predominantly mediterranean genus, with just a few species reaching Britain. O. apifera is much the most widespread and frequent of these. Undoubtedly it was once locally common in the south, but ploughing and re-seeding of old pastures has meant that much of its former habitat has gone, and to see this attractive plant is now always a privilege.
As with other Ophrys species, the flower is an example of reproductive mimicry. The three outer perianth segments (consider them modified sepals) are large, brightly coloured, and presumably attractive to insects. The three inner perianth segments are highly modified, resembling a bumblebee (Bombus), hence the common name, 'Bee Orchid'.
In general, Ophrys species resemble particular insect species and this extends to chemical mimicry – they produce the appropriate pheromone to attract the insect, which then attempts to mate with the flower – an activity termed 'pseudocopulation'. During this unrewarding activity the detachable anthers (pollinia) adhere to the insect's head, and may be carried to another flower where cross-fertilisation is completed.
It has to be admitted, however, that O. apifera is not a good example of reproductive mimicry, as it is predominantly self-fertilising. It is visited and pollinated by bees of the genera Andrena and Eucera (Lang, 2004), but only rarely, and these are mining bees, similar in general appearance to honey bees (Apis), and so at least visually quite unlike the flower of O. apifera.
Identification and variation
The Late Spider-orchid (O. fuciflora) is the most similar, but it differs in the patterning and shape of the lower lip of the flower. In both species, the lower lip terminates in two shallow lobes, with a short projection between them, but whereas in O. apifera, the projection consists of a single point that is curved round underneath the flower, in O. fuciflora, the terminal projection is usually 3-toothed and is directed forwards and upwards. Since O. fuciflora is confined, in Britain, to a very few populations in east Kent, this is a distinction that is rarely needed!
O. apifera itself includes a number of distinct variants, unsurprising in a self-fertilising and often transient species. The most notable of these is var. trollii, the "Wasp Orchid". The lower lip lacks the two, shallow, terminal lobes and instead the projecting point is much elongated and directed forwards. The shape of the flower is consequently much more that of a social wasp (Vespula) than of a bumblebee and the ground colour and patterning of the lower lip are also paler and with a more barred effect. It is scattered, rare, reportedly readily hybridised with the typical Bee Orchid and not infrequently confused with malformed plants of the latter, but it seems to be a distinct entity within the species, both in Britain and in continental Europe.
Lang (op. cit.) and Foley & Clarke (op. cit.) have an excellent pages of photographs of this and other named colour and pattern variants.
An especially noted feature of O. apifera, much emphasised by Summerhays, is its unpredictability. Although sometimes constant in old pastures, it is transient or appears very irregularly in many localities. Young plants develop underground, dependent on mycorrhizal fungi for their nutrition, and may not produce leaves or flowers for a period of years, while single occurrences are presumably due to efficient dispersal of its dust-like, wind-blown seeds. In the north of its range it is particularly uncertain; in Scotland it has few records and apparently had not been seen anywhere for more than 20 years before its rediscovery in Ayrshire in 2003 (Laney & Stanley, 2004).