An alternative title could be, when is a bee not a bee? When it's a flower, perhaps! This afternoon I have been to one of the less well visited parts of the reserve in search of another exciting discovery: bee orchids.
I've regularly seen bee orchids just a few hundred metres south of the reserve boundary, on Sizewell Beach, but I don't recall hearing about any recent sightings on the reserve itself, so I took the first opportunity to go for a look myself. I wasn't disappointed.
Bee orchids are fascinating plants. Like many related species they have evolved insect-like shapes and colours that are designed to trick passing insects into landing on the flowers to assist with pollination. It's easy to see the bee-like central part of the flower, while the pollen is held in the smaller green lip that curves from the "bee's" head. When a passing bee lands on the flower, the pollen is brushed off onto the unsuspecting insect, which are then rubbed off on the next flower that it lands on.
Another fascinating aspect of bee orchid ecology is that they can often suddenly appear in a new area, or re-appear after an absence of many years. They can also just as easily vanish again after just a year or two, so it will be interesting to see what happens to this population in future years.
Despite their bright colours, bee orchids can be easy to overlook in a flower meadow as the leaves are quite narrow, the plants rarely more than about 20 cm tall, and the flowers may not bloom for long. However, once you've got your eye in, it's easy to find several more growing together. In the five minutes that I spent looking for them I quickly found at least 25 plants, but one of our wardens counted almost four times that many earlier in the week.
A small number of bee orchids come in a different colour-scheme, though it's usually possible to find at least one of this rarer white variety, and sure enough, I did find this lovely one among the colony.
While the bee orchids were the star attraction of my walk, I think top-billing was shared with another interesting grassland plant. Despite its name, common broomrape is a recent arrival here, being first recorded from the same meadow within the last 10 years. It is however, very widespread there this year, suggesting that recent changes to our grazing regime may be benefiting this unusual plant. It was the first time I've found any broomrape species in the UK.
Broomrapes are parasitic plants. Unlike other plants, they do not produce their own chlorophyll - the chemical that gives leaves their green colour - but instead it steals nutrients from its host plant. Some species are host-specific, so will only grow in certain conditions, making them generally rare within the UK. Common broomrape is less fussy and parasitises a variety of grassland species, making it more widespread than it's relatives. It stands out more easily than the orchid due to the lack of green pigmentation.
Within the same field, I also found a plant that is relatively locally distributed within East Anglia's grasslands, and another species that I don't recall seeing at Minsmere for several years: grass vetchling. This one is easy to miss due to its small size, and similarity to several closely related species, the but the single vibrant pink-red flower is distinctive.
To reduce disturbance to these plants I won't mention exactly where they are in this blog, but if any botanists are visiting and would like to look for them, please ask at reception in the visitor centre and we'll happily point you int he right direction. It is, however, much easier to spot some of our other exciting plants, such as yellow horned-poppy and restharrow in the dunes, or yellow flag and southern marsh orchid in the reedbed. The latter grows alongside several of the paths, including on the access to Island Mere Hide and close to Wildlife Lookout.
With so many great flowers around, it's not a surprise to see a good variety of insects. In fact, the grasslands were literally buzzing with bees. I saw several painted lady, red admiral and peacock butterflies as well as my first common blue of the year. Ruddy darters have begun emerging en masse, and other dragonflies seen include Norfolk hawker, emperor, black-tailed skimmer, four-spotted chaser and various damselflies.
Of course, there are birds too, with one of today's highlights being the great white egret that one lucky visitor photographed in flight from Bittern Hide. Bitterns showed regularly at Island Mere, where the Savi's warbler continues to sing. A cuckoo was heard near the sluice, where Dartford warblers, stonechats and linnets can also be spotted. Reed and sedge warblers and reed buntings are widespread within the reedbed, and I was lucky enough to not only hear a grasshopper warbler but to catch a glimpse of it singing close to the S-bend between Wildlife Lookout and South Hide.
The great news from the Scrape is that there are at least three little tern chicks, as well as the breeding kittiwakes, Mediterranean gulls, common and Sandwich terns. The first southbound spotted redshanks and green sandpipers have appeared this week, and black-tailed godwit numbers have increased to at least 120. Identifying the ducks is becoming more of a challenge as many are now moulting.
Finally, let's finish with an "ahh" moment, if you'll excuse the poor photo. I spotted this tiny avocet chick on West Scrape today.
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