The insect has a wingspan of over six centimeters and is the size of a man’s thumb.
It has a wingspan of over six centimeters and is the size of a man’s thumb. And until a few weeks ago it had been presumed extinct. Wallace’s giant bee, that is.
The world’s largest species of bee, known scientifically as Megachile pluto, was not seen for decades until several specimens were spotted in 1981 on three nearby Indonesian islands. They then went AWOL again until this January when a search team managed to track a female of the species down in the North Moluccas.
The rediscovery of the long-unseen species is being celebrated by conservationists. “Amid such a well-documented global decline in insect diversity it’s wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still hanging on,” says Prof. Simon Robson, from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, who was a member of the team that rediscovered the insect.
In January, a team of researchers had set out in the footsteps of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in the mid-19th century traversed parts of Indonesia and described several exotic species hitherto unknown to western scientists. He described the bee, which came to bear his name, in 1958. Little remains known about the insect’s distribution on the three islands where it is believed to be endemic.
“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed anymore,” observes Clay Bolt, a photographer who took photos of the giant bee during the latest expedition. “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.”
Deforestation on the islands that the giant bee inhabits has led to a decline in local ecosystems over the past decades. Now that this elusive species of bee has been rediscovered, the task will be to ensure it won’t go extinct in coming years and decades as a result of further habitat loss.