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Wallace’s giant bee found in Indonesia

A single specimen of Wallace’s giant bee, Megachile pluto, has been discovered in the North Maluku Islands of Indonesia. Found by natural history photographer Clay Bolt and a team of scientists, the bee was photographed and videoed before being released back into its home environment.

This species is a member of the common Megachile genus, which also includes the leafcutters and other resin bees. They all have large mandibles (jaws) which they use for collecting building materials such as leaves, petals, and resin. In fact the generic name Megachile means “large jaws.”

Although the bee was first discovered in 1858 by Alfred Russell Wallace, it wasn’t seen alive again until 1981. And because it is so rare, very little is known about it. The bee’s most obvious trait is its enormous size. With a wingspan of 2.5 inches, it dwarfs the European honey bee, Apis mellifera.

Giant bees and tiny islands

In all, the bee has been seen on three islands in the Moluccan archipelago: Bacan, Halmahera, and Tidore. It is known to nest in arboreal termite nests about eight feet off the ground. To build her nest, the female bee collects tree resin and wood chips with her huge mandibles, then builds inside the termite nest. Once built, she lines her nest with the sticky tree goo. This resin is apparently too sticky for termites to navigate, so it keeps them at bay.

Wallace’s giant bee prefers primary lowland forest, which is unfortunate because that habitat is being lost at a rapid rate to oil palm plantations and other agriculture. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the species as “Vulnerable.”

However, the bee’s scarcity along with its unusual size has made it a target for collectors. Two specimens showed up on eBay in 2018, and one of those sold for $9,100. With prices like that, It’s hard to say whether the find will be good or bad for the long-term survival of the species.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

This composite press release photo shows a European honey bee, Apis mellifera in comparison to Wallace's giant bee, Megachile pluto. Image: © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com
This composite press release photo shows a European honey bee, Apis mellifera in comparison to Wallace’s giant bee, Megachile pluto. Image © Clay Bolt | claybolt.com

Comments

Ron German
Reply

Rusty,

At that price, people will be traveling there hoping to pay for their trip with another dead endangered creature.

Ron

Rusty
Reply

Ron,

That’s exactly what I thought.

tony Puddicombe
Reply

Hi Rusty

I have been reading your blog for over a year and really enjoy it. In the article about Megachile pluto, I think the phrase: “Although the bee was first discovered in 1858 by Alfred Russell Wallace” should read “The first discovery by a European was in 1858 by Alfred Russell Wallace”.

It may seem that I am being a nit-picker for facts, but it bothers me that colonials always think they fist discovered something that indigenous people knew about 1000’s of years ago.

Rusty
Reply

So Tony, as long as you are nitpicking facts, how do you know the indigenous people knew about these bees 1000s of years ago? Did they leave any records, or are you assuming?

Tony PUDDICOMBE
Reply

Hello Rusty,

Good question. I had no information about indigenous people or the North Maluku Islands when I wrote my first post. So, today I checked Wikipedia, which said Halmahera Island had a sultanate (like a kingdom) founded in 1409. So people have lived there a long time.

My first post also was assuming Indonesia had indigenous people living there just as indigenous people have lived close to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia, where I have lived most of my life. The indigenous inhabitants here have lived here for at least 10,000 years and had/have vast knowledge of the ecosystem.

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