by Stephen Mifsud
   9 Aug 2020      ()
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Ophrys iricolor subsp. mesaritica   (Cretan Rainbow Bee Orchid)

Ophrys iricolor subsp. mesaritica  (ORCHIDACEAE.) 
Images for this profile are taken from the Maltese Islands at or after year 2000.

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Nomenclature Morphology
Plant Description and Characters Plant Information and Uses
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Profile Date Jan-2006 (last update: 12-Jan-2019)
Citation for this page Mifsud, S. (Jan-2006) Ophrys iricolor subsp. mesaritica retrieved from on 2020-Aug-09


Species name :

Ophrys iricolor subsp. mesaritica  (Paulus, C.Alibertis & A.Alibertis) Kreutz

Authority :

Johannes Paulus, Dutch ;
C. Alibertis, Greece ;
A. Alibertis, Greece ;
Karel Kreutz, Netherlands, 1954-

Synonyms :

Basionym or principal synonyms: Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis (P.Delforge) Mifsud & L.Lewis
Full list of synonyms: [ PlantList ]   [ IPNI ]   [ Catalogue of Life ]

Plant Family :

Orchidaceae  Juss.
(Orchid Family)

English name(s) :

Cretan Rainbow Bee Orchid

Maltese name(s) :

Dubbiena ta' Kreta

Status for Malta :

Indigenous. Present on the Maltese islands before man

Name Derivation :

Ophrys = "Eyebrow", referring to the furry edges of the lips of several species. (Greek);
iricolor subsp. mesaritica = (1) iricolor: rainbow, for having colourful patterns on the labellum (Latin); (2) hospitalis: alluding to the Knights of Saint John which are also known as the Order of Hospitallers.

Remarks :


Morphology and structure



Growth Form




Erect but without a true aerial stem :

Erect flower stalk(s) and leaves grow directly from the true underground stem such as rhizomes, tubers, corms or bulbs.

Single, unbranched scape :

Plant forms a single, leafless, robust, unbranched flowering stalk (=scape) which is often found growing from underground tubers, rhizomes, bulbs or corms.

Puberulous :

Covered with minute hairs or very fine down; finely pubescent.


Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)







Basal Rosette :

A cluster of leaves in a circular arrangement at the base of the plant. Upper leaves are more erect and wrap around the flowering stalk as a sheath.

Sessile from an underground stem :

Growing directly from an underground stem (bulb, rhizome, tuber, etc.) without a stalk.

Parallel venation :

Veins running from the base parallel to the leaf longitudinal axis.


Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)


Leaf Shape

Leaf Margin



Lanceolate :

Lance shaped, widest in the basal third, tapering gradually towards the tip.

Entire :

Smooth margin without indentations, lobes or any projections.



Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)




Basic Flower Type

No. of Petals

No. of Sepals


Dark brown with a greyish-blue centre

Orchidaceous :

Orchid-like flower, generally consisting of 3 sepals (arranged as a T) and 3 petals (arranged as a Y) with the lower petal (the lip or labellum) being highly modified and conspicuous.


2 small and inconspicuous and 1 complex and colourful (labellum).


Identical, green and oval-lanceolate in shape.


  Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)







Spike :

Unbranched, elongated, indeterminate inflorescence with sessile flowers.

Inner tepals (=sepals) ovate-lanceolate, green; upper iiner tepals (=petals) narrow oblong with abtuse or blunt tip, greenish-mustard colour; labellum slightly notched at the base, lanceolate, velvetly texture, dark brown/maroon sometimes with a very narrow yellow margin; speculum (central area) greyish-blue rarely with an orange-red perimeter or speckles; underlip green, sometimes with a pale reddish centre. The sides of the basal part of the labellum are elevated into ridges, and slightly twisted sideways (character of the O. iricolor group).

Inferior :

Ovary situated below the flower parts (the calyx, corolla, and androecium). In other words, these are attached above the ovary.

Pollinia x 2 :

Ovary situated below the flower parts (the calyx, corolla, and androecium). In other words, these are attached above the ovary.


Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)



Average Flower Size

Pollen Colour

Other Notes


None or very faint

Emits an odour resembling the pheromone (sex hormone) of a female wasp (or bee) to attract it for coupulation and hence carry out pollination. Not detected by humans.

11-15mm x 10-13mm

(Ref. length x breadth of the Labellum).





No. Per Fruit





> 2,000

Despite the large amounts, propagation by seeds is not viable for Orchids .

Powder form

(very small to have a distinct shape ).

ca. 50 micrometers

Extremly small; ca. 50 micrometers (1/20 of a mm).



Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)



Fruit Type

Colour of Fruit

Subterranean Parts

Other Notes


Indehiscent Poricidal Capsule :

A non-splitting fruit capsule which usually stores a large number of tiny seeds which escape through small pores or slits in the walls of the fruit.


(turns light brown when ripe.).

Twin Tubers :

Plant have a pair of ellipsoid, food-storing tubers that resembling testes.

Germination and Growth

Germination and growth is successful only with the presence of specific microrhizzial funghi in the soil. Growing Orchids from seeds is very unsuccessful especially fow terrestrial species like Ophrys and Orchis.


Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019) Online Flora of the Maltese Islands  2002-2019)

Plant description and characters

Life Cycle:


Growth Form:

GEOPHYTE (bearing underground bulbs, rhizomes, stolons, etc.)


Calcareous low garigue and steppes. Seems to prefer slight disturbed and sloped ground.



Localities in Malta:

Frequent in Malta, very rare in Gozo. Particularly common in Dingli cliffs and Wied Anglu.

Plant Height:


Flowering Period:


Protection in Malta:

Protected by law: schedule VI of legal notice LN311/2006. (strictly protected species)

Red List 1989:

Not listed in the Red Data Book of the Maltese Islands


Unlikely to be poisonous.

Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis is quite variable and the following description, based on the study of several specimens from Malta, is a general one.

This species is the first flowering Ophrys in Malta, starting as early as mid-December, peaks during the first 2 or 3 weeks of January and declines throughut the rest of January up to mid Februaury. Another very similar species, O. iricolor subsp. vallesiana start flowering in end of Feb, and there often overlap between the two.

The plants are rather small, typically 12-20cm and produce 2-5 flowers, but in high vegetation, specimens up to 30cm with 8-9 flowers have been observed. The underground tubers produce a rosette of 4-8 rather small, broadly-lanceolate leaves that lie over the ground. Often leaves produce black markings or spots when the plants gets old or injured. A flowering stalk is then produced from the centre of the basal rosette often with one or two supporting leaves sheathing its base.

The flower consists of 3 green sepals arranged in the form of an inverted 'T' and 3 petals in the shape of a 'Y'. The sepals are broad lanceolate with a blunt tip and slightly concave, about 12 x 8mm in size. The median sepal is slightly smaller, sub-orbicular and more concave than the lateral ones. The two upper pepals are also green, sometmes with a brownish tinge, and have an oblong shape with an obtuse rounded tip. They measure an average of 7.5 x 2.5mm.

The labellum is dark-brown with a violet tinge, with a velvet-like texture due to the presence of dense hairs. The labellum has three lobes, with the central being the largest and sometimes notched at the base. The speculum varies considerably from light blue to dull indigo, monochrome or marbled with darker blobs, rarely with a hint of red. O. iricolor subsp. hospitalis is classified in the Ophrys iricolor group because the basal part of the lip is elevated into a plateau with the external side forming ridges that are twisted slightly laterally. In some specimens in Malta, this plataeu/ridges structure is weak. The underlip is generally entirely green, but considrable number of specimens have a faint red centre with a green border and more seldom one can find specimens with a well defined red centre and demarked green border. The angle between the central longitudinal axis of the lip and the sides of its lateral lobes is between 30-38 degrees. Some specimens have labella with a narrow (hairline) yellow rim, not more from 0.5mm. The lip varies between 12-14mm in length (+/- 1mm).

The sexual parts of the flower includes a pair of pollina hanging loosely over a hollowed, semi-spherical stigmatic cavity. The pollinia have a sticky surface by which they adhere to the body of the pollinator (a kind of wasp of the species), detatches from the flower and get carried away entirely by the pollinator, hopefully reaching another flower of the same species. Fertilisation of the flower leads to the formation of the fruit, barrel shaped green capsules (about 15mm long, 7mm wide) which when mature forms longitudinal slits through which the millions of tiny dust-like seeds can escape.

Information, uses and other details

Nativity and distribution

According  [367] the Genus Ophrys is native to the Mediterranean region but has a more extensive range from the Canary Islands to the Caspain Sea and from Southern Scandinavia to North Africa (Maghreb).

The Maltese species was first recorded with the name of Ophrys mesaritica Paulus, C. & A. Alibertus, an orchid described and endemic to the plains in Mesara - a region in Crete. On a short visit in Malta in 1993, Pierre Delforge examined the Maltese speciemns and identified them as O. mesaritica  [369]. He also stated that this species is possibly found in Lesbos too  [368]. The Maltese and the Cretan stations are disjunct by some 900km and raised the doubt whether they are actually the same species. Some authorities already considered that the Maltese population is morphologically different from O. mesaritica while others simply lumped it with Ophrys fusca s.l. When S. Mifsud studied the morphological characters of the Maltese specimens, they were not fully consistent with the description of O. mesaritica from Mesara, but not being able to exame the Cretan species, he could not conclude. However, he reported these morphological details in a paper few years ago (Mifsud & Lewis, 2011) to share the knowledge with the scientfic community. A year later, Pierre Delforge re-examined the Maltese plants, and concluded that they were indeed different from those at Mesara and described them as Ophrys hospitalis with minor differences from Ophrys mesaritica. However, there is a concensus with the main Ophrys authorities (eg. Kreutz, Paulus, Gack, Baumann) that the naming of the iricolor group should be as subordinate taxa of O. iricolor, and hence the name of O. hospitalis was adjusted in a subsequent paper by Mifsud and Lewsis (2012) as Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis.

The species is frequent in Malta, recorded from over 25 localities according to a study on Maltese Orchids by Bartolo, Pulvirenti, Stevens and Lanfranco.  [367]. and recorded for the first time in Gozo by Mifsud (see Mifsud & Lewis, 2010). It is probably present also in Sicily, and during some excursions in Ragusa, similar plants were observed by Mifsud in Feb 2011, though details were not examined carefully and compared to the Maltese population. So far, Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis is an endemic orchid species for the Maltese islands.

Distribution of Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis in Malta.

This species was reported from 26 localities in mainland Malta, one from Comino and none from the island of Gozo according to a publication in 2001 by G.Bartolo, S.Pulvirenti, E.Lanfranco and D. Stevens about the Maltese Orchids.  [367], Mifsud & Lewis (2011), recorded for the firsttime this orchid from Gozo, located in a garrigue near Isopu Tower, San Blas and ix-xaghra Tal-Magun, l/o Nadur. In Malta it is a frequent species, and observed in abundant numbers at Dingli Cliffs and Fawwara (localities of Dingli and Siggiewi). Other places where it is found includes: Bingemma, Buskett and Verdala, Mistra, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra area (Qrendi), Pembroke, San Pawl tat-Targa (Mosta); Wied Rini (Mgarr/Rabat), Wied Babu And Wied Hoxt (Zurrieq), Wied Harq Hamiem (St. Julians), Kalakara, and Ras il-Bajjada (Rabat). Bartolo et al. (2001) also reported the following closely related species:

  1. Ophrys fusca s.str Link
  2. Ophrys caesiella P. Delforge
  3. Ophrys parosica P. Delforge (probably a mis-identification with the variable O. caesiella)
  4. Ophrys pectus Mutel
  5. Ophrys pallida Rafin. (based on old bibliographical records, possibly a mis-identification since not found again for several decades)
  6. Ophrys mesaritica Paulus, C. & A. Alibertus
According to the Belgian Orchidologist - Pierre Delforge, who visited Malta for few days in February 1993, the Ophrys species he found were:
  1. Ophrys mesaritica Paulus, C. & A. Alibertus; (now O. hospitalis)
  2. Ophrys lupercalis J. Devillers-Terschuren & P. Devillers;
  3. Ophyrs pectus Mutel
  4. Ophyrs fusca Link. (later descibed as a new species - Ophrys caesiella Delforge).

Species of the Ophrys iricolor complex.

This complex or aggregate is so far made up of five member species which are closely related to each other. Previously they where grouped as the single species Ophry iricolor and before that even lumped with the main Ophrys fusca s.l. The main charactaristic of the iricolor group is that of having a plateau with elevated ridges at its sides (somewhat slightly twisted outwards) located at the base of labellum. The member species of the iricolor group are given below according  [368]
  1. Ophrys iricolor subsp. iricolor Desfontaines
  2. Ophrys iricolor subsp. eleonorae (J. Devillers-Terschuren & P. Devillers) Paulus & Gack
  3. Ophrys iricolor subsp. vallesiana (J. Devillers-Terschuren & P. Devillers) Paulus & Gack
  4. Ophrys iricolor subsp. astypalaeica (P. Delforge) Kreutz
  5. Ophrys iricolor subsp. mesaritica (Paulus, C. & A. Alibertus) Kreutz
  6. Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis (P. Delforge) S. Mifsud & L. Lewis
Ophrys lojaconoi P. Delforge also have this characteristic plateau with twisted ridges and was part of the iricolor complex, but in hin a latest publication(2006), Delforge placed this species with the O.fusca group without giving any reasons  [368]. This species was a Sicilian endemic but it was also reported in Malta by Mifsud in two localities, (Mifsud, 2008; Mifsud & Lewis, 2011). The species have the iricolor ridges it is not understood why it was segregated from the iricolor group by Delforge.  [SM]

Variability of Morphological characters of O. iricolor subsp. hospitalis

Below are some characters of this species. Codes in { } should refer to image OPHMS-16 in the photogallery below which displays 12 specimens side by side.
  1. Plant size: The plants are usually 12-20 cm long, hence rather small and produce only 2-4 flowers. Specimens growing along high vegetation are exceptionally tall (up to 35cm) and produce 6-9 flowers, with typical sizes and shapes.
  2. Labellum orientation This is usually quite variable from slightly to considerably bent down, but on average it is about 35 Degress to the horizontal plane.
  3. Labellum size: Most specimens are between 12-14mm (from walls of stigmaic cavity to tip) but exceptional specimens of 15-16mm can be found.
  4. Labelum colour: This is best described as dark reddish-brown with a purpe tinge, though some specimens showed a duller brown colour. The purple tinge is best observed in sunlight at the edge of the lip and caused by the presnce of violet hairs on the labellum. In some specimens, this is not observed though.
  5. Speculum: The speculum is one of the most variable parts of the flower, but also the least diagnostic. Character states vary from pale greyish-blue {D1} (the most common) to more dull tones of indigo blue {A3}. It can be plain (monochromatic) {A1,D1} or specled wth few to many dark blue spots/patches {B1,B2,C2}. Exceptional specimens showed one or few prominent reddish marking at the central longitudinal axis of the speculum {C3}. Further more, some specimens had paler crescents {B1} or orange-crimson peri-specular zones {C2}.
  6. Underlip: The plants in Malta showed a certain degree of variability where the majority have a monochromatic green, pale green, or green with washed brown colour. Refer to image OPHMS-15. Some had a green or faint red centre with a vivid green border about 1-2mm thick, while few others had a darker red body at the centre. The latter raises the doubt if they are pure strains introgressed with other O. iricolor s.l. species.

Photo Gallery   (55 Images)

Close up photo of flower from Dingli Cliffs (2-Jan-2006). One can note the velvety texture of the labellum originating from the dense short hairs on the darker part of the labellum.
Flower made of 6 tepals, 5 are green and the other (the labellum) is modified and colourful.
Photo of a typical flower of Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis. The speculum of this species ranges from light blues (as in this specimen) to darker indigo-blue. There is considerable variety in speculum of different specimens, but has little taxonomic importance.
Photo of two flowers (side view). Up to 5 flowers can be seen on a single plant, with occasional specimens having up to 8 or 9 flowers. Note the twisted basal ridges.
This specimen have several dark blue blobs in its milky-blue speculum, but such features have no diagnostic value for identification.
The speculum of this specimen is very pale and without any markings (monochromatic). Interestingly, this a red margin around the bluish speculum. The basal ridges are very distinct in this specimen.
Photo of a wet flower with the labellum appearing warty.
Photo of a flower and few buds. This specimen is producing 4 flowers, which is the average for the species.
Specimens with a narrow (hairline) yellow rim.
Photo of flower having a pale grayish-blue speculum with several dark blue blobs and pale crescents.
Photo of 2 flowers having an interesting red border around the speculum.
Specimen with small lateral lobes and unpronounced basal ridges.
Photo of the underside surface of the flower (for short it is referred to as the underlip). Unlike other species in the iricolor group which have a red centre with a contrasting green border, O. iricolor subsp. hospitalis often has a monochromatic green or pinkish underlip.
Photo of the underlip of another specimen which is plain green, the most common colour in Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis .
Variety of the underlip colour.
Composite image of showing 12 flowers of Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis found growing frequently in mainland Malta mainly between end December and January.
Photo of flower taken on the 12th Jan 2006.
Photo of flower taken on the 12th Jan 2006.
Photo of flower taken on the 12th Jan 2006.
Photo of flower taken on the 12th Jan 2006. Note the marbeled speculum.
This side-view photo clearly shows that the margins of the labellum are reflexed downwards, with varying degree from one specimen and another.
A photo of beautiful specimen with colourful bluish speculum, a peach-brown perispecular zone, a reddish brown labellum and a yellow-green margin. (2-Jan-2006).
Photo of another beautiful specimen with a reddish pattern at the central part of the speculum, something which is very rare to find in Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis.
Close up photo of the labellum. Note the dense hairs which makes the labellum have a velvet-like texture.
Annotated image of a dissected labellum.
Scanned image of a dissected flower against a dark background. Note that the labellum is very hairy but the speculum is almost glabrous.
Annotated image of the flower parts.
Scanned image of a specimen showing that the hairs are dark purple.
Photo showing the detail of the anatomical parts of the reproductive organs of the flower.
Close up photo of the mouth of the flower showing detail of the 2 pollinaria (male organs). These are those vertical columns with a spherical sticky knobs referred to as bursicles or viscidia.
Photo of detached pollinium stuck on a pencil point through its sticky viscidum. This is the male sex organ.
Scanned and annotated imaged of plant.
The plant forms a rosette of broad leaves, with one (or two) upright leaves embracing the flowering stem for support.
Basal rosette of leaves having distinct parallel venation.
Photo of leaves typically found in a garigue habitat in Dec.
Photo of a non-flowering plant.
Photo of plants in flowers.
Photo of a relatively large plant having six flowers. (2-Jan-2006).
Photo of typical smallish plants with 2-4 flowers. (2-Jan-2006).
Photo of plants with few flowers. (2-Jan-2006).
Photo of typical plant of Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis in Malta - small plant (15cm high) with 3 flowers. (2-Jan-2006).
Photo of another plant in a damp garigue. (2-Jan-2006).
Photo of plants in their natural habitat.
Photo of a dense population of Ophrys iricolor subsp. hospitalis, showing that it is a locally frequent species on our islands.
Photo of the fruit capsule, ovate-oblong with swollen longitudinal ridges.
Image of unripe and ripe fruits of this species.
Scanned image of seeds which are very small, light and beige.
Magnified image of seeds.
Photo of flower. (Jan 2006).
Photo of flower. (Jan 2006).
Photo of flower. (Jan 2006).
Photo of a beautiful flower found at Wied Anglu on 2nd Feb 2006.
Photo of a wet flower after rain.
Photo of another beautiful and colourful specimen. Note the purple tinge at the edges of the labellum as a result of the purple-brown hairs.
Photo of a dissected labellum against metric scale (each division = 1mm). Average size of the labellum of O. iricolor subsp. hospitalis is 14mm.

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