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Bee Orchid's mimicry a true wonder of nature

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Though recorded in nearly every Irish county, the Bee Orchid has a very local distribution

Though recorded in nearly every Irish county, the Bee Orchid has a very local distribution

Though recorded in nearly every Irish county, the Bee Orchid has a very local distribution

Many people comment: 'Nature is amazing'. If you doubt that oft-repeated statement here is an example to ponder.

Bee Orchids are in flower at present and are so named because they are one of nature's greatest mimics; their flowers have evolved to resemble female bees.

Many flowers use insects to transfer their pollen from one individual to another. Many use scent and a reward of sweet nectar to attract the pollinators. Unknown to them, the visiting insects get dusted with pollen grains as they partake of what appears to be a free drink of the energy-giving nectar juice.

While many plants have both male and female reproductive organs in the one body, most cannot breed with themselves. The plant in my garden needs to breed with the plant in your garden; the male part of my plant needs to fertilise the female part of your plant and vice versa.

After visiting the flower in my garden to drink nectar, the insect flies off to your garden to repeat the exercise. But in doing so, it carries a precious load of male reproductive material that is going to fertilise the flowers in your garden.

The Bee Orchid goes one step farther; instead of offering a reward of sweet nectar to attract insects, it mimics the shape, colour and appearance of a particular female solitary bee thereby inviting male bees of the same species to mate with her.

When female bees are ready to mate, they release a scent called a pheromone to attract males to ensure that their eggs are fertilised. Not alone does the Bee Orchid mimic the appearance of a female bee, it also produces a scent that mimics her pheromone. How amazing is that?

It is believed that Bee Orchids probably evolved their mimicry in the Mediterranean basin. Over time, the plants colonised areas farther north including Ireland. However, as the orchids dispersed northwards the particular bee that they mimic didn't move with them, so they 'learned' to self-pollinate.

The Bee Orchids that are now in flower on my local sand dunes display their imitation bees and I see them bobbing about in the gentle sea breeze their amazing mimicry wasted on the many local bees of different shapes, colours and sizes. Presumably, they may also be releasing pheromones but that doesn't register on my human sense of smell as, all the while, they self-pollinate without any need for their amazing mimicry.

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