Researchers abuzz as world’s biggest bee is rediscovered in Indonesia

22 Feb 2019

Entomologist Eli Wyman with the elusive bee. Image: Clay Bolt

Scientists have photographed the world’s largest bee for the first time in nearly 40 years.

An insect that many had thought was lost to extinction has resurfaced, bringing joy to entomologists everywhere. Wallace’s giant bee, or Megachile Pluto, had been missing for 38 years and scientists had concerns it had succumbed to the same fate as many other insects. It is said to be the world’s biggest bee.

Just how big is the world’s biggest bee?

The size of a thumb and about four times larger than the average honeybee, Wallace’s giant bee was rediscovered by an intrepid team of researchers from the US, Australia and Canada during an expedition in late January.

The species, described as the ‘holy grail’ of bees, was rediscovered in the Indonesian islands known as the North Moluccas. Scientists now hope that more of the forests in the area are home to more of the species.

The lone female bee had set up a home in a termite nest, where she used her large mandibles to collect tree resin to line her abode and protect against termites. Researchers had observed dozens of termite mounds during the expedition and it was not until the final day of a five-day stint in a particularly interesting area that the group located the elusive insect.

A triumphant return

The bee was originally discovered by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858 on the Indonesian island of Becan. He described the creature as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag beetle”.  Entomologist Adam Messer saw the bee again in 1981, but that had been the last recorded sighting until this year.

The bee’s behaviour is still largely a mystery, but we do know that it inhabits primary lowland forest, which is a great resin and termite nest resource.

The team has already begun discussions with Indonesian collaborators to seek out other bees in different locations. A plan for conservation measures is also in the works, as Indonesia has seen its fair share of deforestation in the last decade and a half.

World's biggest bee, Wallaces giant bee beside a honeybee, it is much larger with impressive mandibles.

Comparison of Wallace’s giant bee and a honeybee. Image: Clay Bolt

Protection from insect collectors

“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,” said Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation’s senior director of digital content and media, and Search for Lost Species lead. “The bee’s protection moving forward is going to rely first on the appropriate government officials and stakeholders knowing that the bee even exists, and then their willingness to help protect it.

“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.”

Breathtaking bee

“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed any more, to have real proof right there in front of us in the wild,” said Clay Bolt, a natural history photographer specialising in bees who took the first photos and video of the species alive alongside his trip partner, entomologist Eli Wyman.

Bolt added: “To actually see how beautiful and big the species is in 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, and a point of pride for the locals there.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects