Rediscovering the Earth’s Most Enormous Bee

Rediscovering the Earth’s Most Enormous Bee_5d63c919c9af8.jpeg

Discovered in 1858 by famed English entomologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, the Wallace giant bee, scientifically known as Megachile pluto, lives up to its reputation as the largest bee in the world. It boasts a wingspan of two-and-a-half inches and a length of an inch-and-a-half, about the size of a large egg.

After its initial finding by Wallace, the bee proved so elusive that it was declared extinct until 1981 when American researcher Adam Catton Messer observed several males and females on three different islands located in the Moluccas, otherwise known as Malukus, an archipelago in eastern Indonesia.

Wallace’s giant bee dwarfs the common honey bee in size. (Composite)
© Clay Bolt | claybolt.com

Now, 38 years later, a team of researchers from the Search for Lost Species Program at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) has reported finding a female Wallace giant bee. And, believe it or not, they have the photos to prove it.

A Bee of a Tale

GWC researchers scoured the Bacan Islands in the Moluccas- one of the last-known areas of habitat for the enormous bee. The research team tasked with finding the “holy grail” of bees included entomologist, Eli Wyman, ornithologist, Glenn Chilton, behavioral ecologist, Simon Robson, and natural history photographer, Clay Bolt. Their successful find has not only proven an internet sensation but has sparked hopes of preserving what remains of this remarkable species.

The bee itself is about the size of a human thumb. Females of the species sport massive stag-beetle-like mandibles. These make the flying giants look like the work of nightmares. Despite their vicious appearance, the arthropods serve a wholly, peaceful purpose. Females use their jaws to scratch resin off trees, which they then use to build their nests.

Finding an Elusive Creature

How did the team find such a shy creature? They started by pouring over Messer’s notes from his encounter with the large insect. According to Messer, the bees liked to build their nests in the lowland forest inside the homes of tree-dwelling termites. Using satellite imagery, the GWC team identified the best areas to search and familiarized themselves with the island’s terrain.

But once they arrived, they only had five days to find the creature. While interviewing locals, they felt disheartened to learn that no one had ever heard of, let alone seen, the behemoth they were looking for. The insect seemed to have virtually disappeared.

Scoping Out Termite Nests

Disappointed by the lack of local eyewitnesses, the team started scoping out termite nests. They spent hours observing what entered and left each burrow. In a few instances, the team thought they’d found a specimen, only to realize a wasp had duped them. The work proved hot, muggy, and grueling, but they weren’t about to give up.

Finally, on the last day of their five-day excursion, they spotted a termite nest with serious giant bee potential. Suspended eight feet above the ground, the only way to access the termite home was by climbing, and that’s exactly what Bolt did. What he saw inside proved both humbling and breathtaking — the first sighting of a Wallace giant bee in nearly forty years.

© Clay Bolt | claybolt.com

The Discovery of a Lifetime

Just four years prior, the GWC team had dreamed of seeing a giant bee in the wild, and now they couldn’t believe their eyes. Capturing photos to confirm their discovery proved of the highest order; they patiently waited for the shy bee to emerge from her termite nest.

After a couple of hours, she poked her head out and proved otherwise camera shy. The researchers finally resorted to tickling her with a piece of grass in the hopes of getting her to emerge. Soon enough she crawled into a large tube that the team provided. The researchers captured photos before and during her flight as she was released from the tube.

Natural history photographer Clay Bolt photographing the rediscovered Wallace’s giant bee in a flight box, which was used for the team to observe the bee for a few minutes and document the rediscovery. © Simon Robson

A Future for the Wallace Giant Bee

The researchers hope that by sharing the news of this discovery, they’ll raise public awareness and support for the plight of the Wallace giant bee. They also hope that the rediscovery will spark future research. If scientists can learn more about the life history of the bee, perhaps they can better protect it from extinction.

© Clay Bolt | claybolt.com

Deforestation continues to ramp up in Indonesia making it more important than ever to educate the public of the high stakes involved in preserving this incredibly rare species. What’s more, the international trade of this species remains unrestricted– another factor impacting the bee’s fight for survival.

If the Wallace giant bee can become an iconic symbol of the conservation movement, perhaps they’ll stand a fighting chance. And, perhaps, more than a handful of researchers will have the opportunity to observe them in the wild.

“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed anymore, to have real proof right there in front of us in the wild,” said Clay Bolt.


By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com