- The world’s largest known bee, the Wallace’s giant bee, has been photographed and filmed in Indonesia’s North Maluku archipelago alive for the first time.
- Wallace’s giant bee is listed as data deficient on the IUCN Red List and researchers know very little about the species.
- But last year, researchers discovered listings of Wallace’s giant bee specimens up for auction on eBay. One specimen sold for $9,100, and another for $4,150.
- Given that collectors already know that the bee is out there, researchers hope that the publicity of the bee will renew both research efforts to understand the bee’s life history better, as well as government efforts to protect the species.
The last time scientists officially reported seeing a living Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto), the world’s largest known bee, was in 1981. Now, in Indonesia’s North Maluku archipelago, the giant bee has been photographed and filmed alive for the first time.
The giant bee was first described in 1858 by the famous British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who spotted it while exploring the Indonesian island of Bacan. He described the female bee as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle.”
Today, Wallace’s giant bee is listed as data deficient on the IUCN Red List. But what researchers do know about the bee is that it’s rare and that it makes its nests in aerial termite mounds. The bee, which has a wingspan of around 6.4 centimeters (2.5 inches) and a body that’s nearly the size of a human thumb, uses her large mandibles to scrape sticky resin from trees. She then lines the inside of her nest with the resin to protect it from termites.
In January, a group of Indonesian guides along with researchers from universities in Australia, Canada and the U.S., set out to search for the bee. It was only on the last day of their search that they were successful in locating one.
Iswan, one of the Indonesian guides, saw a low termite mound some 2.4 meters (8 feet) from the ground. He climbed the tree that the mound was attached to and peered inside to discover something moving inside a nest that seemed “wet and sticky.” Bee expert Eli Wyman, an entomologist at Princeton University and formerly at the American Museum of Natural History, climbed the tree next and confirmed that it was indeed a Wallace’s giant bee nest. Nature photographer Clay Bolt, also part of the search team, was next to follow.
“After doing a happy dance, I photographed the bee and shot some video proof,” Bolt said in a blog post. “My goal was to be the first person to make a photo of a living Wallace’s Giant Bee and I had achieved that goal. Eli, who had been dreaming of this day for twice as many years, had achieved his goal of seeing a species in the wild that nearly no one else had. We were elated.”
Researchers now hope that the images of the bee will renew efforts to learn more about a species that we know very little about. “I hope this rediscovery will spark future research that will give us a deeper understanding of the life history of this very unique bee and inform any future efforts to protect it from extinction,” Wyman said in a statement.
While not many researchers have seen a Wallace’s giant bee in the wild, Nicolas Vereecken, an ecologist at the University of Brussels, found the species in an unlikely place: for auction on eBay.
One 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 during the bidding process,” Vereecken wrote in a study published last year. “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.”
Publicizing the rare giant bee could put the species at risk, given that there’s already some evidence of its demand among collectors. But “the reality is that unscrupulous collectors already know that the bee is out there,” said Robin Moore, senior director of digital content and media at the U.S.-based nonprofit Global Wildlife Conservation, which helped organize the expedition as part of its “search for 25 lost species” program.
“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,” Moore said. “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.”