Ophrys sphegodes - Early Spider-orchid

Phylum: Magnoliophyta - Class: Liliopsida - Order: Orchidales - Family: Orchidaceae

Ophrys sphegodes - Early Spider Orchid

Above: Ophrys sphegodes on the Dorset coastal cliffs

This orchid is the earliest to appear in the UK despite being at the most northerly reach of its territory. Primarily a Mediterranean species, only time and climate change will tell if it continues to survive and extend its presence there. So variable is the appearance (morphology) of this orchid that at least 12 subspecies (pollinated by different insects) are recognised throughout its territory.

Ophrys sphegodes - Early Spider Orchid, France


The plant is slender and grows to around 20cm in the UK but can be much taller in other parts of its range - up to 70cm. Each inflorescence carries between 2 - 18 flowers. The sepals and petals are greenish-yellow sometimes marked with reddish-brown.The lip is dark reddish-brown and velvety in appearance. In some specimens there is a narrow border of green-to-yellow around the margin of the lip. The speculum is H-shaped and is a main distinguishing feature of this orchid, although there are one or two subspecies where the mirror is sometimes absent - Ophrys gortynia, for instance.

Early Spider-orchid from Gargano

Early Spider-orchid on the Gargano Peninsula in Italy


From southern England across central and southern Europe as far south as the Mediterranean and east to the Aegean.

Early Spider-orchid in southern France

Above: Ophrys sphegodes with Pasqueflowers on a limestone plateau in the Aveyron region of France


Ophrys sphegodes grows in open areas of impoverished grassland and in semi-shaded woodland edges. It requires calcareous substrates.

Flowering times

From March through to the end of May, depending on location and exposure.

Ophrys sphegodes var. aranifera, Lot Valley, France

Known as Ophrys sphegodes var. aranifera in France, the plants seen immediately above and below are growing in long, lush grass in wet meadows in the Lot Valley, where they flower during May.

Ophrys sphegodes var. aranifera, Lot Valley, France - closup of flowers

The specimens shown on this page were photographed in Dorset in April, in the Aveyron and Lot Valley regions of southern France in mid May, and on the Gargano Peninsula in southern Italy in early May.

Subspecies on this website

In Europe numerous subspecies are described: O. sphegodes subsp. areneola, O. sphegodes subsp.aveyronensis, O.sphegodes subsp. cretensis, O. sphegodes subsp. gortynia, O. sphegodes subsp. mammosa, and Ophrys sphegodes subsp. spruneri

UK hybrids

Two hybrids are known to occur in the UK: Ophrys x hybrida is a hybrid with the Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera, recorded from Kent; and Ophrys x obscura is a hybrid with the Late Spider-orchid Ophrys fuciflora, also recorded from Kent.


The genus name Ophrys comes from Greek and means 'eyebrow' - a reference to the hairy fringe of the lip of the flower of many orchids in this genus. The specific epithet sphegodes comes from ancient Greek seems to suggest a wasp-like appearance of the flowers of this orchid.

Reference sources

The Plant List

Henrik AErenlund Pedersen & Niels Faurholdt (2007) Ophrys - The Bee Orchids of Europe; Kew

Anne and Simon Harrap (2005) Orchids of Britain and Ireland; A&C Black

Pierre Delforge (2005) Orchids of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; A&C Black

Fielding, Turland and Mathew (2005) Flowers of Crete; Kew

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