The world’s biggest bee species, once thought extinct, has now been found alive.
The rare species, known as Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto), has not been seen since since 1981, according to Earther. Before that, it hadn’t been seen in an even longer stretch, over 100 years. But researchers encountered the species once again in Indonesia last month.
It’s about four times larger than a honey bee, and its giant, pincer-like jaws resemble those on some beetle species. It’s black and about the size of an adult human’s thumb.
— Clay Bolt (@cbnatphoto) February 21, 2019
The idea to search for the bee started when Eli Wyman, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, showed nature photographer Clay Bolt the museum’s rare specimen of their own Wallace’s giant bee. This encounter turned into the desire to see the bee species alive. The two then put together a team to visit North Moluccas in search of the giant bee in January, Earther reported.
The pair further realized the importance of witnessing the species live in the wild when a specimen of a Wallace’s giant bee sold on eBay for over $9,000. The bid originally went as high as $39,000, but was lowered after a bidder dropped out, according to a piece written by the team for National Geographic.
The team was concerned, since the bee species doesn’t have the proper legal protections prohibiting such forms of sale, and it could potentially fall victim to people seeking profit, depleting what is left of the species.
“We decided that we had to go there,” Bolt said, via Earther. “Number one, to see it in the wild, to document it, but also to make local contacts in Indonesia that could begin to work with us as partners to try and figure out how to protect the bee.”
The bee species is known for making its nest inside active termite mounds in trees, created in such a way that keeps both termites and water out. So the team watched for the residents of such termite homes while on their expedition to Indonesia.
The search didn’t turn up any giant bees. But during the scheduled final day of exploration, the team’s Indonesian guide noticed a termite mound with a hole that would be just big enough for a Wallace’s giant bee to enter.
The guide, Iswan, climbed up the tree to get a closer look but thought he saw a snake moving around inside. Wyman and Bolt took turns investigating the mound. After Bolt shined a headlamp into it, he saw what he came for: the giant bee, blocking the entrance to its nest.
The team made sure the bee couldn’t fly away by temporarily sealing the nest access hole, and then planned what to do next.
“We were just basically freaking out after so many years of planning and almost giving up hope,” Bolt said, via Earther. “It was an incredible moment to realize that we came all this way, other people have looked for it, and here we were: filthy and sweaty and we somehow found this insect. For me, it was a moment of tremendous gratitude and humility that I was a part of this moment and this team.”
The bees live one to a nest and do not have the tendency to sting when threatened. And their intimidating jaw is mostly used to transport resin for nest maintenance.
Through this expedition, Bolt became the first person to document a living Wallace’s giant bee through photography.
The team’s next steps include finding out how many more giant bees exist and where, and then figuring out ways to protect them.
Bolt hopes the bee can come under such protections like those of a bird in the area, Wallace’s standardwing.
The fact that the bee is relatively unknown, even locally, means that few know where or how to look for it, said Bolt. This situation offers it the protection of obscurity, but the lack of awareness also means its habitat could unknowingly be destroyed.
However, the journey gave Bolt an optimistic outlook on animal conservation.
“This really offered me hope. There’s so much bad news that’s coming out, with all these species being lost, and I think sometimes it’s easy to just give up and say ‘there’s no hope for anything’,” Bolt said, via Earther.