Imagine a bee as long as your thumb, four times larger than a honeybee with massive mandibles, like that of a giant stag beetle. That's a big bee but the likelihood of you encountering this largest of bees is slim because it was discovered living on an Indonesian island of the North Moluccas.
First discovered in 1858
Known as Wallace's giant bee, the British explorer and naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who according to the NY Times, "like Charles Darwin, worked to formulate the theory of evolution through natural selection." Wallace discovered the bee on the Indonesian island of Bacan in 1858, remarking only that the female resembled a "large, black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag beetle. Although Wallace didn't seem that interested in the giant bee, devoting only one line in his journal to it, entomologists developed an obsession for his giant bee.
Until now, the bee was feared to be extinct, as the last time one was reported was some 37 years ago. In 1981, American entomologist, Adam Messer sighted the bee on three Indonesian islands, observing how the bee wielded its giant mandibles to gather tree resin and wood for its termite-proof nests. Messer brought back a handful of specimens that are now housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the London Museum of Natural Science and other institutions.
Giant bee not an easy find
This past January, the Wallace giant bee made news when a team of American and Australian conservationists actually rediscovered one female in a termite's nest, in a tree six and a half feet off the ground. The Megachile pluto
specimen, a resin bee that somehow prefers to build its nest in an existing termite nest, sports a wingspan of 2.5 inches. While you might naturally assume that the world's largest bee might be easy to spot - not so much. Wallace's giant bees tend to be somewhat elusive and reclusive, preferring to hide in resin nests inside tree-dwelling termites' nests, up in trees, as opposed to buzzing around the rainforest all of the time. The Wallace giant bee, a solitary bee, cares for her own young so a good portion of her time might consist of child-rearing.
The expedition spent five days searching termite nests
According to Clay Holt, the team's photographer, who captured the very first images in history of a living Wallace giant bee, "I personally know of at least five attempts to find the bee," Bolt said. University of Sydney biologist, Dr. Simon Robson, added, "It was a lot of walking around the forest in 90-degree heat and the highest possible humidity looking at termite nests and chasing after bees," said Dr. Robson. On the Australian radio show, 3AW Breakfast with Ross and John
, Dr. Robson told the early talk show hosts that the team listened for the sound of the giant bee's wings and looked for the right size holes in tree termite nests the bee dug as an entrance to the nest. In fact, that's how the team found this Wallace giant bee.
Not an aggressive bee
Asked if the Wallace giant bee could sting, Dr. Robson said these bees are capable of stinging, "We were all keen to get stung to see how bad it was," he said, "but because we only found the one, we treated it very carefully." Robson added that the bee seemed like a very nice bee, "It's just ridiculously large and so exciting," said Robson.
Expedition raises hope
Although the expedition's find lays to rest the fears that the Wallace giant bee is extinct, conservationists are concerned about the bee giant's survival, due to deforestation in the bee's natural habitat. According to Global Forest Watch
, the islands in Indonesia where these giant bees have been found suffered a 7% tree cover loss between 2001 and 2017.
Team fears collectors threaten the bee's survival
Additionally, the expedition is concerned that this new sighting of the giant bee will catch the attention of collectors. A rare find like this would mean a lot to some collectors willing to pay the price to secure a specimen. As recently as last year, a previously unaccounted for specimen was sold on eBay by an anonymous seller for $9,100. "If you can get that much money for an insect, that encourages people to go and find them," said Dr. Robson. In order to dissuade people to go out and try to find the giant bee, the research team agreed not to reveal the exact location of their rediscovery. Currently, no laws exist to regulate the trade of these bees to collectors.
According to conservation biologist, Robin Moore with Global Wildlife Conservation
, and The Search for Lost Species
program head, "We know that putting the news out about this rediscovery could seem like a big risk given the demand, but the reality is that unscrupulous collectors already know that the bee is out there." Emphasizing the importance of conservationists to make the Indonesian government aware of the rarity of this find, as well as encourage them to take steps to protect the bee and its habitat, Moore said, "By making the bee a world-famous flagship for conservation we are confident that the species has a brighter future than if we just let it quietly be collected into oblivion." The expedition team also plans to return to the island to conduct further research but, "that will involve making links with local scientists in the area and getting permission to go and work with them," said Dr. Robson.
Sponsored by Global Wildlife Conservation
The Wallace's giant bee expedition was funded in part by a non-profit Texas Global Wildlife Conservation, that began a global search in 2017 for 25 "lost" species. Animals on this list include species that may or may not be extinct but haven't been sighted in at least ten years. This list includes the Pink-Headed Duck, the Fernandina Galápagos Tortoise, and the Namdapha Flying Squirrel, along with Wallace's giant bee.
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