Late spring and early summer is the best time to see the UK’s much-loved wild orchids, with many species in full bloom, showing off their ornate and colourful flowers.

Now experts behind citizen science project Orchid Observers want people’s photographs of these exquisite plants, to help them find out how climate change might be affecting orchids and other UK wildlife.

The project, launched last month at the start of the orchid flowering season, is organised by the Natural History Museum in London and the University of Oxford’s Zooniverse (a website which hosts major public science projects).

 

Head of the Natural History Museum Centre for Biodiversity Dr John Tweddle said the survey has had a “brilliant response” so far, with up to 250 images submitted.

In about another week or so, we’re really going to hit main orchid season. And then it’s going to be common spotted, marsh orchids, helleborines, the whole shebang

By gathering records of flowering times of orchids around the UK, organisers will study how climate change is affecting the phenology (recurring behaviour) of the plants, and wider ecosystems.

The survey follows research suggesting early spider orchids’ (Ophrys sphegodes) peak flowering time is advanced by about six days per degree Celsius rise in temperature during spring.

Dr Mark Spencer, Orchid Observers scientific lead, said some research suggests spring and autumn emerging wildlife tend to be affected most strongly by temperature shifts.

One concern is that certain species that are dependent on others might not respond to environmental changes at the same time.

 

It is hoped the results of the current survey, which are likely to be published in the autumn, will allow the team to work towards protecting key orchid populations.

"Winners and losers"

The UK is home to 56 native orchid species, but the general picture is one of “winners and losers”, according to Dr Spencer.

Among the winners, bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) and pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) are increasing their range and moving north, as well as possibly growing in abundance.

But he points out that others like the “incredibly vulnerable” sword-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia) are struggling, and very few populations of man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) - recognisable by its petals shaped like tiny human figures - are “safe and secure.”

 

“It’s a mixed bag. But as a group orchids as a whole in the British Isles are not doing well,” Dr Spencer said.

For the current survey, people are being encouraged to upload their photographs of 29 orchid species to www.orchidobservers.org. They can also help to digitise historical collections of the flowers by extracting data from the Natural History Museum’s 10,000 herbarium specimens, some of which are about 100 years old.

The project will continue throughout the orchid flowering season, which usually lasts until early September.

Species to look for now include the early-purple orchid, distinctive for its vivid colour and purple spotted leaves, and the green-winged orchid, the flowers of which sport hoods formed by green-lined sepals.

“The main sort of flurry of orchid flowering in the British Isles is really the middle of May till the end of June,” said Dr Spencer.

 

“The next one that’s coming along is the common twayblade. And fairly soon, in about another week or so, we’re really going to hit main orchid season. And then it’s going to be common spotted, marsh orchids, helleborines, the whole shebang is going to hit us fairly soon.”

Dr Tweddle said they hope the survey will help them understand how climate change is affecting the diversity of species found in the UK.

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