The largest bee species in the world, unseen since 1981 and feared extinct, has been found and photographed by a team of researchers from Australia, Canada and the US.
Wallace’s bee (Megachile pluto), native to Indonesia, has been recorded by scientists only three times in history. The first time was by English entomologist Alfred Russell Wallace, after whom it is named, during a visit to the Indonesian island of Bacan in the 1850s.
He described it as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle”.
It was then not observed again until 1981, when it was seen on three other islands by entomologist Adam Messer.
Despite several expeditions, the bee wasn’t seen again until January 2019, when it was found by an international team of investigators from Australia’s universities of Sydney and Central Queensland, Princeton University in the US, and Saint Mary’s University in Canada.
In some ways it is utterly remarkable that the bee has remained invisible for so long, because it is not exactly small. Wallace’s bee has a wingspan of more than six centimetres.
The most recent specimen was found in the North Moluccas, living in a termite nest that was suspended from a tree branch about 2.5 metres above the ground.
It was photographed by team member Clay Bolt, a US conservation photographer and bee specialist. He described the insect as a “flying bulldog”.
“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,” he says.
“My dream is to now use this rediscovery to elevate this bee to a symbol of conservation in this part of Indonesia.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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