The largest bee in the world was rediscovered in the forests of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia. For a long time, many thought this species to be extinct. However, thanks to the endeavors of a small team of scientists, a female specimen was found up and about in a termites’ nest.
Named after British entomologist Alfred Russel Wallace, who discovered the insect together with Charles Darwin in 1859, the Wallace’s giant bee (scientific name Megachile Pluto) is the largest of its kind. Females can measure up to 1,57 inches (40 mm) in length and they have a wingspan of 2,36 inches (6 cm). Males are smaller, they can reach a length of 0,91 inches (23 mm).
The Wallace’s giant bee was last seen in 1981 by American researcher Adam C. Messer, who found various nests on the Maluku Islands. He observed how the bee uses its mandibles to gather resin and wood to line its nests and protect it from invading termites.
Clay Bolt, natural history and conservation photographer, took the first photos of the species alive after years of research with Eli Wyman from Princeton University. Bolt explains how this expedition began:
“When we heard that GWC was calling for nominations for their Search for Lost Species program, we convinced them to include Wallace’s Giant Bee on their top 25 ‘most wanted list’. We were one step closer to fulfilling our dream.
In October of 2018 Eli was contacted by Canadian-born writer Glen Chilton about a trip that he and colleague Simon Robson (of James Cook University, Queensland, Australia) were putting together to search for Wallace’s Giant Bee and other species Wallace had described. After much planning and deliberating, the four of us booked tickets in December for a trip to Indonesia in late January of 2019, around the same time of year that both Wallace and researcher Adam Messer (who was the last to see the bee in 1981), encountered the bee.”
On the last day of a five-day stop in an area of interest, the team found a female Wallace’s giant bee living in a termites’ nest.
Bolt said that the bee lives in the lowland forest. The problem is that its habitat is threatened by deforestation. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015 rates Indonesia as second in the top ten countries reporting the greatest annual net loss of forest area between 2010–2015.
Also, in the article Wallace’s Giant Bee for sale: implications for trade regulation and conservation, entomologist Nicolas J. Vereecken writes:
“I found out that a single female specimen freshly collected on Bacan in February 2018 appeared on an international online auction site. The specimen sold to an anonymous private collector for US$ 9100 (ca. 8000€) on March 24, 2018 after the price rose as high as US$ 39,000 (ca. 34,250€) during the bidding process. More recently, on September 16, 2018, a second specimen of M. pluto was sold for US$ 4150 (ca. 3645€) on the same online auction site.”
Vereecken explains that the Wallace’s giant bee is currently red listed according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, the international trade is currently not restricted for it does not appear on the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This is why the collectors’ interest in this species will pose new challenges to those who want to protect it from extinction.