It was such a thrill to see Bee Orchids in South Devon:
Here in Matera I can see a familiar shape but a very different face:
These are Bertoloni’s Bee Orchids, Ophrys bertolonii. They have almost finished flowering so we have to scout in the sparse vegetation for more of them. It’s almost impossible to walk without stepping on them so we retreat to the path and lean over in the fierce sunshine of a clear mid-day.
I’m sure they must look very different to a bee:
Bee Orchids are the rubber sex doll of the plant world. I can’t really believe I’ve just written that sentence. Please forgive me.
They have evolved such an incredibly intricate and entwined relationship with specific species of bees that disappointed bees have been involved in pseudocopulation with them for millions of years. The more bee-like the flowers look and smell, the more pseudocopulation takes place, the more the offspring of the Bee Orchids’ flowers look like bees and so on. It’s a story as old as bees with orchids.
The poor sucker male Bee has pollen dumped on his head as he struggles to mate with the false female. Male bees can sometimes prefer Bee Orchid flowers to female bees, their power is so overwhelming. Ophrys orchids produce highly specific chemical compounds called allomones which mimic the scented pheromones released by specific species of female bees. The allure of the perfume and the false hairy bee-bottom is too much for the poor males.
Plants. You’ve got to admire them. They’re weirder than any imagination.