In what’s been called the “holy grail” of bee discoveries, a team of researchers have rediscovered a species of giant bee not seen in more than three decades, leaving some to wonder if the insect had gone extinct in recent years.
Last month, an international team of scientists and conservationists set out on an expedition through Indonesia’s North Moluccas island group to find Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto), which is the world’s largest bee with a wingspan measuring more than 6 centimeters (2.5 inches). But it wasn’t until the last day on a five-day stop in this particular area that the team found a single female Wallace’s giant bee living in an active termite nest in a tree 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) off of the ground.
“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed anymore,” said conservation photographer Clay Bolt in a statement. Bolt took the first photos of the bee. Together, he and entomologist Eli Wyman have spent several years researching the ideal environment these bees would be found in if they still existed in the wild.
“To see how beautiful and big the species is in real life, to hear the sound of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible. My dream is to now use this rediscovery to elevate this bee to a symbol of conservation in this part of Indonesia.”
The thumb-sized insect is named after Alfred Russell Wallace, a researcher who contributed to the theory of evolution through natural selection and who first discovered the bee more than a century ago, describing it as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle.” The bee wasn’t spotted again until 1981 when entomologist Adam Messer first described its behavior, which includes nesting in termite mounds and using its mandibles to collect tree resin to line its nest in a termite-proof barrier.
The team says their discovery lends hope that the world’s forests may contain more specimens of this rare species and that other species lost to science may be residing in remote pockets around the world.
“Amid such a well-documented global decline in insect diversity it’s wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still hanging on,” said team member Simon Robson.
Deforestation further threatens the giant bee’s habitat. According to Global Forest Watch, 15 percent of Indonesia’s tree cover has been lost to agriculture between 2001 and 2017. Indeed, insects around the world may be on the verge of a “catastrophic collapse”. According to an analysis published in Biological Conservation earlier this month, up to 40 percent of the world’s insect species may face extinction in the next few decades, changing the planet’s ecosystems and impacting the animals – and people – that rely on them.