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Bee Orchid

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Edited by Richard Walker, Thursday, 9 July 2015, 00:41

Here's a Bee Orchid I photoed on my iPhone last Friday in Milton Keynes UK.

These plants are beautiful and fascinating. The photo is a little blurry but pretend you are a bee, it will lend allure.

The Bee Orchid is one a genus of orchids which try to trick insects of a particular kind into trying to have sex with them.

They visually mimic a female of the insect species concerned and even produce the identical pheromone to attract the male insect.

When the male insect visits the flower and engages in "pseudo copulation" some pollen sticks to its knees and is carried off to pollinate another plant.

At least that's what happens in the Mediterranean, which is where these orchids first evolved.The Bee Orchid has spread northwards though, but without the bee.The one in the pic above almost certainly had a parent that was self-pollinating.

Because of this adaptation the Bee Orchid seems to be expanding its territory in Britain. Look out for it - from mid June to mid July, if you pass a patch of waving grasses with two or three different wildflowers visible, see if you can spot an orchid.

In history orchids have associations even more sordid than their subversion of bees. The name orchid means testicle in ancient (and I think modern) Greek. This is because the plants when dug up apparently have two tubers. Is it true? I don't know, I've never dig these plants up.

This probably influenced the astonishing Anthanasuis Kircher [1] when he suggested that Bee Orchids grew from bulls' semen, because bees grew from bulls' corpses. The writer was a massive scholar, seldom if ever exceeded, and I would never detract from that. I've always loved scholarship and piling up information and knowledge. I'm doing it now.

But I don't go for the bull.

One counterexample always shows a theory is wrong.

There were absolutely no bulls, either dead or alive, anywhere even remotely near where I saw these orchids in Milton Keynes.

All the same bees are implicated in Bee Orchids and there have been studies of whether male bees that hit on orchids reduce their chances of passing on their genes. It's a delicate  evolutionary balance. But the consensus is the male bees do waste semen.

The plot thickens. If you know about the 'Doctrine of Signatures' from my previous posts about plants, or from elsewhere, you can probably work out what bodily part orchid tubers were once considered good for. But it's all a load of orchids.

[1] Kirchner's work is a sort of Wikipedia for its time. Online at http://ouhos.org/2011/09/14/athanasius-kircher-mundus-subterraneus-1665/

[2] The uses and misuses of orchids in medicine. Online at http://qjmed.oxfordjournals.org/content/98/9/625

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