To Bee or not to Bee? ... Now that's an Orch(w)id Question
Greece has extensive biotype diversity and a favourable geophysical location and both these influences have given rise to a rich and complex flora. No better example of this complexity is the range of orchids to be found there.
Greece has over 200 species of terrestrial orchids, with one genus, Ophyrs, commonly known as the Bee Orchids, comprising almost half of them. They are a complex and attractive group of flowering plants whose beauty has led to over-collection, and while new regulations have halted their decline to some extent, habitat disturbance is still a major concern.
The subject of Greek orchids is far too large to contain in one blog article and far too complex for my insufficient talents so this post will focus only on the genus Ophrys or the Bee Orchids and some of the species, and characters, I have encountered on my travels. In my next post I will cast the net wider and take a look at the other big genera, Orchis, as well as, Serapias and Dactylorihza .
Ophrys are named after the Ancient Greek word for "eyebrow" for in the time of Pliny the Elder an extract from the plant was used to dye eyebrows and hair. They are fertilized by insects but have no nectar so they have devised a remarkable way of attracting them.
It is the overall shape and appearance of their flowers, which resembles the female of a particular species of insect, mostly from the Hymenoptera family, that is the key. The male of the insect species is tricked into attempting to "mate" with the flower and in doing so gets pollen sacs stuck to its head which it carries to the next flower and fertilizes it. This sexual mimicry, which is tied to specific insect species, has given rise to many complex permutations of patterns and forms and thus a wide range of ophrys species.
It has also given rise to a multitude of hybrid swarms no doubt because the process is based on deception which often confuses pollinating insects resulting in many miss-matched "matings". Recently it has been found that these orchids have added olfactory mimicry to their bag of tricks. They produce a chemical similar to the mating pheromone of the female bee or wasp, further increasing the flower’s allure. To misquote Darwin's famous statement on evolution: Nature surely is a tangled web!
This genus has many devotees who invest hours tracking down and recording sightings but because it is so widely distributed and there is so much variety it would take more than a lifetime to unravel all of its intricacies. Luckily, in a few well known "hotspots" like the Kedros Plateau on Crete, and Mt Pelineo on the island of Chios, a significant number of species occur together providing a great opportunity for the enthusiast.
A few companies have begun to bring nature tours to these sites in early spring and a small but locally important tourist industry is developing. Unfortunately these ventures are at the mercy of the traditional shepherding practice of driving livestock up to the higher, orchid-rich areas as the season progresses. With better planning both activities could happily co-exist through the regulation of grazing areas while the orchids are in bloom but currently support is haphazard and lacking in local government will.
This situation is emblematic of Greece's general approach to boutique tourism, for having cashed in on package tourism for so many years, it is still relatively blind to the possibilities and challenges that these growing specialist markets present. Of course there are exceptions, especially in Epirus and the Zagori where ecotourism and outdoor adventure tourism, such as trekking and rafting, are starting to find a niche.
Entrepreneurship is where one finds it and it can pop up in the strangest places and in the weirdest forms. On a dusty pot-holed track that skirts the Kedros Plateau in Central Crete a battered old van pulls up alongside before we even have a chance to pull off and park our car. A large middle aged lady with beautifully coiffed hair waddles over to my driver's side window and motions for me to wind it down. I find myself obeying without a second thought. "You are looking for orchids? Deutsch? Ingleesh? Fransay?”, she booms. "My husband, Yorgi, iz the expert in the whole island and he writes the books on thees. Come look!" Again I find it impossible to resist and the next thing I know I am up at the back of the van and peering in.
It’s an Aladdin’s Cave in there, piles of books lay stacked up into their different language versions, postcards, posters and prints festoon the rest of the available space, each and all in some way depicting Crete's flora and fauna.
"If you are here, you need theese", she commands, and thrusts an English version of Orchids of Crete and Karpathos into my hands. I find myself obeying instantly, reaching for my wallet, without even thinking to ask the price. "Eets 18 euro and my husband weel sign it for you". At this point George, who hasn't spoken a word so far, is brought forward, smiling dimly. I ask him a question about his work. He looks puzzled and just keeps on smiling weakly. The lady intervenes, "He doesn't understand much Igleesh, he speaks Deutsch". She takes the book from George, places it into my hand and they drive off in a cloud of dust, leaving me blankly leafing through my new acquisition, vaguely wondering if I needed another book . . . and if George is as good as wife when he "does" the Germans.
Please note because these plants are under strict CITES regulation they are not available for sale in Australia. However if you are interested in seeing them in the wild, along with a wealth of other beautiful flowers, then watch this space. As from next year we are planning to offer guided tours to Crete and other destinations in Greece. So if a Greek adventure is the something you've dreamed about, or maybe you simply want to walk in an ancient land brimming with myth and legend, then this could be for you. Further details will be posted soon.