In recent days I saw several swallowtail butterflies in different localities, including a pair which I photographed at Pembroke.
The recovery of the swallowtail population is good news not just because the swallowtail adds beauty to the Maltese countryside, but more importantly because the swallowtails found in the Maltese islands are an endemic race found nowhere else in the world. If it becomes extinct in the Maltese islands this race will be lost forever.For the past four or five years I noted that there were fewer butterflies in the Maltese countryside than in previous years. The swallowtail, like other species, had become very scarce. This could be because of the heavy rain of five years ago, which might have destroyed a large number of overwintering eggs and pupae.
The swallowtail is our only endemic butterfly. It is so special that it should be declared Malta’s national butterfly. We already have a national plant, national bird and national tree. It is now time to have a national butterfly as well.
Its scientific name is Papilio machaon melitensis, melitensis showing that it is a Maltese race.
In Maltese it has several names. It is known as farfett tar-reġina (queen’s butterfly), farfett tal-busbies and farfett tal-fejġel, fennel and rue being its two food plants. It is also known as farfett tal-lira.
This species is a good candidate to be declared our national butterfly because it is beautiful and attractive and is easily identified. It does not harm crops, it does not spread disease and it does not have any negative connotations.
A number of countries already have national butterflies. In the US it is being proposed that the monarch becomes the national butterfly, while most states have a butterfly as a national state symbol.
National plants and animals are looked upon by the citizens of a country and by outsiders as symbols that represent and unite their country.
They can also help draw attention to that species, particularly for the need to protect and conserve them. In Malta this has already happened with the blue rock thrush (merill), the Maltese centaury (widnet il-baħar) and the sandarac gum tree (għargħar), Malta’s national bird, plant and tree, which are all well-known and loved species.
This article was published in The Times on 13 March 2013.