Sunday, 6 May 2012

Lesvos: a hornets’ nest!

A fertilizing Andrena on an Ophrys mammosa

When somebody calls Lesvos a hornets’ nest that doesn’t mean that it’s dangerous to go there. During the last few months I have been reading in the Dutch press that Greece has become unsafe, a place best not to take holidays. Then I look around and think: what bullshit! Greece is not the only European country where strikes can disturb travelling! And the demonstrations mostly take place in the big cities; through which, in most cases, you do not have to travel when coming to Greece by plane.

On the islands life goes on as usual, crisis or not. Well — let’s say — almost. Even though the weather has rewarded the spring with summer temperatures, some hotels have been forced to open later because of decreasing bookings. And some may not open at all.

The faithful visitors to Greece know better and are not disturbed by any European slander. They know the country and how beautiful this region of Europe is and how wonderful its climate is. Lots of birdwatchers have arrived with their huge binoculars and cameras to admire the migrating birds who make stopovers on Lesvos; lots of tourists drive around to enjoy the flower garden into which Lesvos – every year – is changed during spring.

It is becoming a tradition that those pictures of the bright red poppy fields near Achladerie appear on Facebook, while the fields of red tulips near Vatera remain a secret place for only a happy few. Yesterday we met no tourists while meandering through the mountains above Parakila, where lots of sandy roads wind through the fresh scented pine forests and alongside huge impressive rocks. Nor were there people on the top of the mountain Profetis Ilias (between Parakila and Pterounda), the third highest and most idyllic lookout spot of the island. It is here that I think once apon a time a bird dropped a seed of the yellow Rhodondendron (yellow Azelea actually) so that now we can enjoy those sweet-scented massive waterfalls of flowers, tumbling down through the dark forests.

On the steep mountainsides, densely overgrown with pine trees, we watched another natural event: all those thousands – or even millions – of pine trees were flowering and those little floral clusters producing pollen. Each time a gust of wind touched the tree tops, a cloud of pollen flew out of the tree, floating to the mountaintops. I first thought that some idiot was having a fire in the middle of the woods, but each plume of smoke came from a different location and then I realized that it was the trees giving elegant smoke signals. Within weeks this yellow powder will be settled on the dusty roads and probably some tourists will wonder which stupid person has been scattering insecticide, because that’s what the pollen look like.

Some tourists come to Lesvos to look for orchids. These are two unique worlds, that of the flowers as well as that of the orchid hunters, the name I give these people. Some contain themselves to one island or a one country, others will visit as many regions as possible where these flowers grow. They are guided by the stories of other orchid hunters who share where they found what orchids. It can happen that around Agiasos – the region of Lesvos where most orchids are thought to be found – a queue of people will jog along the roadsides to look for one rare orchid. Well, those groups will keep a certain distance because when an orchid is found, it becomes a very private victory.

Orchid country is a very exciting place because new varieties are still developing. Orchids are divided in different species, which are further divided into subspecies. It is mainly the subspecies of Ophrys that keeps on producing new kinds. This is how it works: the flowers of the Ophrys look like (and have the scent of) female insects and so they try to attract the male insects who – by transferring pollen from one flower to another – fertilize the orchid. As each insect is looking for its own kind ,so each orchid specializes in attracting a specific insect (mostly bees or wasps). But it can happen that an insect by accident or laziness settles on the wrong orchid, fertilizes it and then strange babys can be born: hybrids or new subspecies.

There are orchid hunters who do not approve of all those newly named subspecies and who keep on calling the orchids by their official species’ name. And there are orchid hunters who so badly want to collect all the orchids of one region that they not only tell where one orchid is to be found but also pretend to know which species is ‘not’ growing in certain places. And so in orchid land they keep on squabbling.

Dutch photographer Jan van Lent has fallen in love with the orchids of Lesvos and has been studying the world of the orchid hunters. And here we come back to the hornets’ nest: his blog is called: The orchid paradise: Lesvos, a hornet’s nest! ( The title refers to the orchid hunters who all have different opinions and all use different names. But first his blogs tell about his, sometimes demanding searches and exciting finds on the island, all illustrated with excellent photographs.

So Lesvos is not a hornets’ nest but a small paradise, full of different worlds with birds, insects and plants, breathtaking landscapes, a bright blue sea and traditional villages. No crisis can change that.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

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