Early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes)

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassLiliopsida
OrderOrchidales
FamilyOrchidaceae
GenusOphrys (1)
SizeHeight: up to 30 cm (2)

Nationally rare and lower-risk/ near threatened in Great Britain (3). Fully protected under Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (4).

The early spider orchid has yellow-green to brownish green petals and sepals(1). The lip, which is said to look like a large spider, is purple-brown in colour and has a velvety appearance with a patch of bluish or violet markings in the centre (2) known as the 'mirror' or 'speculum' (5), which may take the form of a capital 'H' (2), occasionally an 'X' or the Greek letter for 'P', Ð (5). The flower spike usually has 2-4 flowers (6), but can support up to six flowers; it can grow to 30 cm in height (2), but is typically between five and 15 cm tall (5). The flowers are generally very similar in appearance to those of the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) (3).

This species is rare in the UK and grows locally in southeast England (1) in Sussex, Kent, Gloucestershire and Dorset, with Dorset and Kent being the current strong-holds (5). Previously it has been recorded from as far north as Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire and North Wales (7). It also occurs in southern, central and western Europe (5), and reaches north to Germany and Belgium (1).

The early spider orchid occurs on open, well drained, chalky or limestone soils in ancient, species-rich calcareous grasslands, on downs, ancient earth works, quarries, tracks and cliff top grasslands. It has also rapidly colonised open chalk spoil from war-time defence works and the Channel Tunnel (6). In Dorset it seems to particularly prosper on cliff ledges and coastal grasslands grazed by sheep and cattle (5).

A short-lived perennial herb which mainly reproduces by seed, and whose populations fluctuate from year to year (6). 70% of the plants flower in the first year that they appear, and most die afterwards, but some may live for up to 10 years (6). About half of the plants are dormant underground each year (6). Leaves grow from the tubers in late autumn and overwinter, withering after flowering (6). It persists through the summer as underground tubers (6).

This orchid flowers in early April to early May (6), a good month before the aptly named late spider orchid (Ophrys fusciflora) (2). Flowers are pollinated by bees of the genus Andrena, but only around 10% of the flowers produce ripe seed. Self-pollination does occur, but it is inefficient (6).

This orchid is at the northernmost limit of its range in the UK, and has sadly declined. It appears that the decline started before the increase in agricultural intensification after the Second World War (2). Illegal collecting is a major threat to many orchid species, and this is known to continue today (5).

The early spider orchid is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, it is therefore illegal to uproot, cut, sell or destroy the species. There is extensive experience of managing sites for it, which are best grazed by sheep or cattle from September to March, but not during the flowering or fruiting season of this orchid (6).

Information authenticated by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/ and Tim Rich of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.

  1. Grey-Wilson, C. (1994) Eyewitness Handbooks: Wild Flowers of Britain and Northwest Europe. Dorling Kindersley, London
  2. Fisher, J. (1987) Wild Flowers In Danger. H. F. & G. Witherby, Ltd. London.
  3. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  4. JNCC (March 2002): www.jncc.gov.uk/species/protect/plants.htm
  5. David C. Wareham. Dorset Magazine (March 2002): www.dorsetmag.co.uk/magazine/issue057-a0.phtml
  6. Rich, T. C. G. (1997) The management of a semi-natural lowland grassland for selected rare and scarce vascular plants: a review. English Nature Research Reports no. 216. English Nature, Peterborough.
  7. Preston, C. D., Pearman, D. A., Dines, T. D. (2002) New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press, Oxford.