Hundreds of rare bee orchids bloom in 'pollinator town' Midleton

Hundreds of specimens of a striking rare orchid have burst into flower on roadsides in one of Ireland’s first pollinator towns.
Hundreds of rare bee orchids bloom in 'pollinator town' Midleton
Joe McCarthy, East Cork Municipal District Officer, Cork County Council, and volunteer Rachel McCarthy, of the East Cork Biodiversity Networking Programme, inspecting bee orchids along a roadside verge in Midleton, Co Cork.
Joe McCarthy, East Cork Municipal District Officer, Cork County Council, and volunteer Rachel McCarthy, of the East Cork Biodiversity Networking Programme, inspecting bee orchids along a roadside verge in Midleton, Co Cork.

Hundreds of specimens of a striking rare orchid have burst into flower on roadsides in one of Ireland’s first pollinator towns.

Environmentalists say they have counted 363 individual bee orchids on verges in Midleton in East Cork where a managed scheme to support biodiversity has been in operation under the All Ireland Pollinator Plan for over a year.

The remarkable flower, which mimics the patterning and scent of a female bee, first appears in Irish records in 1793 and in the two centuries since, there are just 479 records of it in the landscape - some records refer to a solitary flower, others to a few dozen flowers at a time.

Pronsias Ó Tuama of the East Cork Biodiversity Networking Programme said to now have a record of 363 individual bee orchids in one town is spectacular, especially in an urban setting.

“This is absolutely amazing and it’s the kind of action you want to see from a local authority,” he said.

“It’s cost-effective for the council because they use less manpower and machinery to cut meadows and verges, and they’ve stopped using pesticides, so it has huge environmental benefits too in terms of biodiversity. This result should be praised and lauded and shows that pollinator plans should be rolled out in towns all over the country.”

Úna Fitzpatrick, head of the All Ireland Pollinator Plan at the National Biodiversity Data Centre, said they occasionally receive records of bee orchids each year.

“So to know that over 300 have popped up on roadside verges across Midleton is amazing,”  said Dr Fitzgerald.

“Full credit is due to the county council and the East Cork Biodiversity Networking Programme for changing the way public land is managed through their reduced mowing regime.

“Those little seeds have been waiting in the soil for decades to get a chance to pop up and show us their beauty. It is so easy to help our biodiversity recover if we want to.”

The bee orchid is easily distinguishable from all other orchids, with its gold and brown velvety lower petal patterned to resemble the back-end of a female bumblebee.

It attracts solitary bees who land on the plant in the hope of mating with a female but in the process, they help to pollinate the native Irish perennial wildflower which can grow to about 30cm to 40cm in height.

Last year, the council’s East Cork Municipal District successfully implemented a range of actions in public parks, open spaces, road verges and ornamental planting beds around Midleton under the All Ireland Pollinator Plan.

Flower beds were planted with pollinator friendly perennials at The Rock and Coolbawn areas of the town, spraying of pesticides was reduced and road verges in Midleton and Ballinacurra were left to flower into long flowering meadows.

A five-acre area of frequently mown grass in Midleton Lodge Park, part of the Midleton Distillery complex, was identified as a potential wildflower meadow.

The frequency of mowing was altered to leave it uncut until September each year to allow the existing seed bank of wildflowers to flourish.

That change led to the appearance of native wildflowers such as self heal, knapweed, yellow rattle and birdsfoot trefoil.

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