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Orchids named after insects

By Peter Wilde

Each of these species has evolved a flower structure that is designed to mimic and attract specific insects, but they are members of two distinct families - Ophrys and Platanthera:-

Ophrys apifera

Bee Orchid. Credit Peter Wilde

  • Despite the mimicry of the flower, the bee orchid in Cumbria is close to its northern limit and is not pollinated by bees. Plan B operates and seed is set by self-pollination. Vegetative reproduction may also occur.
  • A species of open calcareous grassland, it readily colonises the bare ground of man- made sites such as spoil heaps and quarries. Its stronghold in the county is in the south west around the Duddon Estuary (Hodbarrow may have hundreds in a good year) and the Furness Peninsula, but declines have occurred as quarries have been taken for other purposes. It also occurs at a handful of sites around the Kent Estuary.
  • Flowering is typically from the third week of June; each stem holds a handful of flowers, rarely ten or more.
Find bee orchids on the Trust's reserve at Clints Quarry


Ophrys insectifera

Fly Orchid Credit Peter Wilde

  • The mimicry here is perfect to attract male digger wasps, even to the extent of producing imitation folded wings, antennae and a pheromone scent.
  • A species of limestone pavements and roadsides, it is found around the head of Morecambe Bay, for example on Whitbarrow, and on the limestone at the head of the Eden Valley (where it is at the northern limit in Britain). Surprisingly it is not recorded in the south west of the county where the bee orchid thrives.
  • Flowering can be a month earlier than the bee orchid, typically from the third week of May; each stem holds a handful of small widely-spaced flowers, rarely eight or more. It can be very difficult to spot at first, but often several other spikes then become apparent in the vicinity. Occasionally, it can grow very tall to 60 or so centimetres, when it can be easier to locate.
Find fly orchids on the Trust's reserves at Hutton Roof Crags, Waitby Greenriggs, Latterbarrow and Augill Pasture


Platanthera chlorantha

Butterfly Orchid Credit Peter Wilde

  • Named after the beautiful and slender shape of the flower, this orchid is actually pollinated at night by moths, which are attracted to the luminous flowers and strong scent.
  • It is found in ash and hazel woodland on limestone and in haymeadows. In the former it can be dormant and non-flowering, reappearing when coppicing or clearance takes place. In the latter, "improvement" of meadows has brought about a serious decline. However, it is easily the most widespread of the four species on this page, being found all round the county where the limestone places a ring between the Lake District fells and the coast.
  • Flowering is typically from the beginning of June; each stem holds upto 20 flowers but where growing in some shade the flower spike is generally more sparse.
Find butterfly orchids on the Trust's reserves at Smardale Gill,  and Argill Woods


Platanthera bifolia

Lesser Butterfly Orchid Credit Peter Wilde

  • Like its larger namesake, this species is pollinated at night by moths. It is distinguished by the two pollinia being parallel, whereas the greater butterfly orchid has the pollinia converging together from base to tip until they almost touch.
  • It is found in more acidic habitats, in both grassland and bogs. In Cumbria it generally occurs in boggy ground in scattered populations throughout the county, although it is sparsely represented in the west and south west.
  • Flowering is typically a couple of weeks later than for greater butterfly orchid, typically the last two weeks of June; each stem holds fewer, generally smaller flowers, than its cousin.
Photos: Peter Wilde


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