Largest bee in the world rediscovered

Almost four centimeters large insect was good for 37 years as lost

Wallace's giant bee (Megachile pluto) compared to a normal honeybee. © Clay Bolt / claybolt.com
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Spectacular find: In the Moluccas, researchers have rediscovered the largest bee species in the world - Megachile pluto, also known as Wallace's giant bee. The almost four centimeters long insect has a wing span of six centimeters and unusually long jaws. After she was last spotted by a researcher in 1981, this species was considered lost.

Charles Darwin and his companion, the British entomologist Alfred Russel Wallace, marveled at this bee. When he explored the Indonesian island of Bacan, he came across an unusual large insect: an animal with a wingspan of six inches and a thumb-long body. Wallace described this being at that time as a "large, wasp-like insect with immense pines similar to a stag beetle".

Finally tracked down: A copy of the giant bee Megachile pluto. © Clay Bolt, claybolt.com

Massive jaws - for resin collection

However, what exactly this insect was about, remained unclear for the time being. Only in 1981 did the entomologist Adam Messer succeed in recovering the animal and describing it in detail. It is therefore a bee from the genus of M rtel- or leaf cutter bees, which builds their nests in Termitenbauten. The bee was given the technical title Megachile pluto, but is also called Wallace's giant bee in honor of its first discoverer.

The giant bee uses its unusually large pliers not for defense, but for the protection of their offspring: It collects sticky tree resin, forms it into small balls and mixes them with wood fibers. This mass uses the bee to line the course of their nest and clog the entrances. Once hardened, this protective layer is too hard even for the mandibles of termites.

Rediscovered in the Moluccas

Whether this giant bee still exists today has long been unclear. Because since its description in 1981 Megachile pluto has never been spotted. Biologists therefore feared that the then extremely rare insect could have become extinct. Although researchers searched for the animal again and again, but were never found. display

Now, however, a team led by Eli Wyman of Princeton University and animal filmmaker and photographer Clay Bolt have managed to find Wallace's giant bees. On the northern Moluccan islands, they stumbled onto the bee at a 2.50-meter-high construction of tree termites. "It was just breathtaking to see this flying 'Bulldog' of an insect that we were not sure if it still existed, " says Bolt.

"Big and beautiful"

After being lost for more than 35 years, Bolt succeeded in filming and photographing Wallace's giant bee for the first time. "To see how tall and beautiful this species is in real life and to hear the hum of its huge wings as it flew past my head - that was just incredible, " says Bolt.

The discovery of the giant bee University of Sydney

Little is known about Megachile pluto and its way of life. However, it seems clear that she needs to survive in rainforest areas where she finds both tree resin and the nests of tree-dwelling termites. However, this habitat is in acute danger: between 2001 and 2017, Indonesia lost 15 percent of its forest areas because rainforests were turned into agricultural land.

Habitat acutely threatened

The research team hopes that the rediscovery of Megachile pluto will further protect the habitat of the rare and globally unique giant bee in the future. "Amidst the well-documented decline in insect diversity worldwide, it is wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still enduring, " says Simon Robson of the University of Sydney.

But how long this giant bee will last depends on whether the forests it needs to survive will survive in the future.

Source: University of Sydney

- Nadja Podbregar