An obsessive quest just ended with the rediscovery of the world’s largest bee

Extinction stories rarely end this well.
Extinction stories rarely end this well.
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The largest bee in the world is black, has a giant curved jaw, and is the size of a human thumb. And up until this week, scientists believed it was extinct.

Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto), native to the North Moluccas islands in Indonesia, went missing for 40 years. First described by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, it initially went missing for nearly a century and was spotted again only in 1981. It hadn’t been seen since—until January, when a group of very serious bee enthusiasts took a trip to the North Moluccas with a singular mission: Find the big bee.

Eli Wyman, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, along with nature photographer Clay Bolt, writer Glen Chilton and ecologist Simon Robson, joined two Indonesian guides named Iswan and Eka (no last names were noted in the announcement), and spent days searching in every termite mound they came across for a Megachile nest.

On the last day of their trip, as they were about to give up and declare the search unsuccessful, the team spotted a female Megachile in a mound. They removed the giant bee so Bolt could take photographs, and then returned it to its nest.

They were ecstatic, by Bolt’s account, he said: “Just knowing that this bee’s giant wings go thrumming through this ancient Indonesian forest helps me feel that, in a world of so much loss, hope and wonder still do exist.”

As Earther noted, though they might be giants—four times the size of a honeybee—these bees aren’t aggressive. Their jaws are used to carry droplets of resin back to their nests (“more like salad tongs than pincers”) and they are solitary creatures who don’t have the tendency to defensively sting like bees that live in hives.