To Bee or not to Bee? ... Now that's an Orch(w)id Question

Ophrys heldriechiiGreece 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 phryganae

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!

Ophrys hebes Ophrys funerea

 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.

Ophrys apifera Ophrys candida

Most Ophrys species flower in early spring and on previous visits to Greece we have been too late to catch sight of them. On our last trip we set an earlier arrival time and were rewarded with some wonderful images of these jewel-like, if slightly surreal, little bulbs. The Kedros Plateau is definitely a standout because of the range of plants on display and its easy access. Its also only a short 10 minutes drive away from the little village of Spili, at the base of the mountain, where, depending on the weather, one can grab a beer or a coffee, and sit and listen to the sound of water gushing unceasingly from out of the bare rock at the lion fountain.

Ophrys scolopax

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.

Ophrys lutea

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.

Ophrys ariadnae Ophrys argolica


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.









Hi Terri,

Thats what I said when I first saw these plants 20 years ago. I thought someone was pulling my leg! We do have our own Australian orchids that do the same thing, including what are commonly known as the Flying Duck orchids.

Cheers, and thanks for the comment, Marcus

Please keep me posted for Cretan botanising - have been meaning to do this for ages.

Hi Amanda,

I certainly will do. I will be putting up a new page on my website with more detail in the next couple of months. I want to include in the tour an opportunity to see the incredible Dragon Lilies, Dracunculus vulgaris, the ones I showcased in my preceding blog post in May.

Cheers, and thanks for your interest, Marcus

Hi Marcus, Fascinating! how many did the Greeks have to harvest to dye their eyebrows. Some things never change. I am more fascinated by their evolution. It had never occurred to me that this has to be convergent as our own terrestrial orchids rely on moths and wasps and very clever mimicry. Dare I say ours are a little more inventive. Take for instance , the duck orchid, Caleana major, fertilised by sawflies, or the very weird Arthrochilus huntianus, and all the truly exquisite spider orchids.

Hi Catherine,

Always great to get your comments. I don't know the answer to the hair dye question but I can tell you that in my next post I will revealed that some species of Turkish Orchis are now under threat because they are used in the making of a very popular ice cream!

You probably noticed my Darwinian misquote in the article? Yep, everything seems to be connected to everything else through evolutionary relationships. It is fascinating to see how a group of terrestrial orchids, that lacks a food attractant, has had to come up with another strategy to propagate their species. What is amazing is how did this happen by incremental mutation? I dunno ....... anyone out there with a theory? Cheers, and thanks for your interesting observations, Marcus

Hi Marcus. Went on a trip to Greece in May with Caroline Davies Tours many years ago. It was fascinating. Saw lots of tulips, cyclamens and many other bulbs. It is a fascinating place, lots of walking in the mountains. Pity about the goats and sheep eating all the growing oaks. Some of them must have been quite ancient except they were only about 3 feet tall.

Hi Yvonne,

I know Caroline and I knew her husband, David. Both delightful people and what a treat to have the opportunity to see those plants first hand. By the sounds of it some of your trip was in Crete? It is very difficult to view tulips elsewhere in Greece although they do grow there.

Goats and sheep have been part of the landscape for eons but what has changed is the rapidity with which they get up to the higher pastures. Once the shepherds drove them up but now they are trucked up way too early. And on Crete the shepherds tend to contain their flocks in one area for too long using welded dog fencing. This results in a patchwork of over-grazing and neglected areas which become covered in prickly phrygana. Both not good for the flora.

Cheers, and thanks for your comments, Marcus

It's interesting that northern forms of Ophrys apifera are self pollinating, so that their flowers may give a clue to the appearance of females from an extinct bee species...

Hi Rob,

I think O. apifera is one of the only species of Ophrys that is self fertile. How fascinating to think that the flower may be the echo of a ghost. Its the living equivalent of an insect trapped in amber!

Great stuff!  Cheers, Marcus

Hi Marcus, Does each of these astonishing orchids have a corresponding bee species that it is mimicking, or are all these flowers attempting to 'appeal' to the same species? It just seems so crazy to me that one plant family shows such mutability, and leaves you gasping to try to explain, as you mention in your reply to Catherine above, how this happened by incremental mutation, and how to do so without any implied teleology

Hi Michael,

According to the reference books I have, my understanding is that they are pollinated by bees, wasps and sawflies. Delving further I believe that a number of orchid species may be polinated by the same species of insect. For example a little bee with the name, Eucera dimidiata, appears to be a very active agent. I mentioned in my post that I guess that is why there are so many hybrids. Its a confused (and confusing) situation and I suppose a hotbed of evolutionary activity but it all seems to work! As my reply to Rob's comment on O. apifera alludes to, most Ophrys species are not self fertile so they must rely on a pollinating agent. And the mechanisms for this are so specialised that it must be some sort of "copulating" insect. The mind boggles!

Cheers, Marcus

I think the very intricacy of the flowers and their relationship with their pollinators is an argument against teleology and in favour of the exploitation of random chance. There are too many 'Darwin's Moths' in the orchid toolbox; they've painted themselves into an evolutionary corner, relying on the continued existence of a single agent. for their survival. That's not a good plan, but it is what would happen if evolution is all tactics and no strategy. Better to try to emulate the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass and try to believe six impossible things before breakfast than run the risk of slipping into creation science.

Hi Rob,

What an interesting allegory for the state of modern plant breeding! And now, as you are no doubt aware, being a participant on the SRGC Forum, the European Commission wants to tie the whole thing down in regulatory red tape.

That aside, yes I agree such are the pitfalls of specialization. In my blog post on Brunsvigia josephinae I make reference to the problem that B. litoralis now has to deal with because of its reliance on a very narrow band of pollinating agents. The poor things have been left stranded because human activity has driven away all of its potent pollinators.

When I was at school I remember the standard biology text at the time was the Web of Life, I now understand all too well the full implications of that title.

Cheers, Marcus

Marcus, We should thank Cicero for his advice about applying the maxim of Cassius. Always a useful touchstone. Myself, I've often felt like one of the animals on the farm with his nose pressed up against the window - I can't tell pig from farmer.

Hi Rob,

Who benefits indeed. I sincerely hope the European situation is not going to be repeated anywhere else!

"I think the very intricacy of the flowers and their relationship with their pollinators is an argument against teleology and in favour of the exploitation of random chance" 

Its kind of spooky to think that all this is just here because of chance but .... many species have tried and failed before. We are the victims of our own wonderful evolutionary structure, consciousness, and that has given us the ability to perceive our own demise and to make up some comforting stories. Is consciousness an evolutionary dead end? Maybe it would be best not to know the difference between the farmer or the pig?

Cheers, Marcus