The swollen chest bee orchid. Photo: Stephen MifsudThe swollen chest bee orchid. Photo: Stephen Mifsud

It may look like an insect from a distance but the swollen chest bee orchid is the most recently discovered flowering plant in Malta.

News of the discovery of the new orchid was broken in May by this newspaper when Archbishop Charles Scicluna was guest editor of the Times of Malta for a day.

New details have emerged, including its botanical name, which it got from two swollen rounded features: Ophrys x tumentia. In Latin, tumentia means ‘swelling’.

Although linked to a known species by renowned Belgian orchidologist Pierre Delforge some years ago, botanist Stephen Mifsud recently discovered that the orchid was actually new to science and confined to the island.

It turns out that the orchid is a hybrid of two species, and its parents are the rainbow bee orchid and the Maltese brown bee orchid.

This new orchid has characteristics belonging to the two rather common parents, and it always occurs where they are present.

A significant feature inherited from the rainbow bee orchid is a red centre bordered abruptly with green at the reverse side of the flower’s lip. The rounded structure at the inner part of the lip is inherited from the other parent.

It now joins some 40 other species of wild orchids in Malta, half of which are very rare.

Mgr Scicluna, who is fascinated by orchids, as to him they epitomise resilience and perseverance, was contacted when details about this new orchid were announced.

“They are really an extra­ordinary example of survival, resilience and perseverance. That is what I admire about the story of orchids,” Mgr Scicluna said.

A single orchid flower can generate over a million seeds but only a very low percentage of these germinate. Orchid seeds are dispersed by the wind and only a few land on a suitable substrate.

For him, the discovery is a sign of nature in evolution that has to be safeguarded: “Creation is a continuing adventure, and it is something we have to stop and admire. We have to safeguard the very special environment in which these flowers and plants grow. They are part of the Maltese landscape and part of the beauty of Malta,” Mgr Scicluna said.

The swollen chest bee orchid – or dubbiena ta’ sidirha kbir in Maltese – is mainly found in just a couple of locations, including in Gozo, with the largest populations appearing in Mellie─ža, Wardija and Nadur.