The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) is a perennial, temperate climate species of orchid generally found growing on semi-dry turf, on limestone, calcareous dunes or in open areas in woodland. The Bee Orchid is a common plant in the Mediterranean region eastwards to the Black Sea but is less common in its northern range being uncommon or local in Germany and Ireland. In the UK it has a distinct south-eastern preference, being more common in England, whereas it is only to be found in coastal regions of Wales and some parts of Northern Ireland. In Scotland it was thought to be extinct, but was rediscovered in Ayrshire in 2003. In some countries the plants have protected status. They are unusual in that in some years they appear in great numbers, then sometimes only reappear after an absence of many years.
This hardy orchid grows to a height of 30 cm. They live in a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhiza ( a soil-dwelling fungus).
The Bee Orchid develops small rosettes of leaves in autumn. They slowly continue to grow during winter. Flowers appear the following year. Each year, it produces from one to ten flowers on a spike, blooming from June to July. The flowers are almost exclusively self-pollinating in the northern ranges of the plants distribution, pollination by the solitary bee Eucera occurs sometimes in the Mediterranean area. The petals are marginal and spread out, colored mauve to pink. The flower is furry to the touch and is quite variable in the pattern of coloration, but usually brownish-red with yellow markings. The alternate leaves are elliptical and pointed.
Bees in the past have promoted the evolution of bee orchids. Male bees, over many generations of cumulative orchid evolution, have built up the bee-like shape through trying to copulate with flowers, and hence carrying pollen. The Bee Orchid is the county flower of Bedfordshire.