Deceitful blooms draw in unsuspecting passers-by

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The Independent Online

Look closely at the pictures. Is that a bee entering the flower above? Is that a fly entering the other?

Look closely at the pictures. Is that a bee entering the flower above? Is that a fly entering the other?

It isn't, but you might well think so. Bees and flies do. They swoop down on what they believe to be fellow insects and attempt to mate with them, an exercise destined to disappointment, for the "insects" are appendages of the flowers.

But by the time they've realised their error, the frustrated bee and fly have been covered in pollen, and when they next swoop on a similar insect-on-a-flower (they don't learn from previous mistakes) they transfer the pollen and it is the flower that can reproduce.

Over millions of years this mimicry has been evolved by the bee orchid and the fly orchid. It is one of the fascinations of the orchid family that is detailed in a new guide to Britain's wild species published today.

Several of our fifty-odd native species, some of which are extremely rare, resemble insects, including the early spider orchid and the late spider orchid (although the greater and lesser butterfly orchids, while delicately beautiful, do not look a lot like butterflies.)

Others, often referred to as "mannikin"orchids, look like people. The tiny flowers of the man orchid resemble a man; those of the lady orchid resemble a woman in a ball gown; while the flowers of the military orchid look like a soldier in a coal-scuttle helmet, with a double line of buttons down his tunic. The lizard orchid's flowers bear a passing resemblance to the reptile, while those of the monkey orchid, illustrated to the left, look very like a tiny monkey.

The new guide, by David Lang, is published by the Government's wildlife watchdog body, English Nature, and the publishing firm WILDGuides.

Andy Brown, English Nature's chief executive, said: "Orchids are the real extroverts of the plant world and this photographic field guide really shows them off in all their glory."

Britain's Orchids, priced at £15, is available through the English Nature mail-order hotline 0870 1214 177.

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