The biggest bee on the planet is unlike any other bee you know. For starters, it lives alone. Which makes sense maybe considering its gigantic size. This bee is four times bigger than a European honeybee. It has a wingspan of two and a half inches, and it’s got enormous jaws, more like those of the famous stag beetle. It’s also understandable then that if these bees were around, people would notice them, but they haven’t been. That’s why it was a triumphant rediscovery when Clay Bolt found one recently.
The last time a scientist spotted one of these extreme species of bee was nearly 40 years ago. Searching for them was a mission that resulted in Bolt and his colleagues trekking through the rain on an Indonesian Island. They were looking out for termite mounds in trees. These bees don’t live in hives (nests) amongst thousands of family members. They live mostly by themselves in burrows in termite mounds, a tubular home it coats with a waterproof resin.
They searched continuously for six days straight. They found around 40 mounds across two islands but nothing. Then, as things weren’t looking hopeful, their guide made a starting discovery accidentally. Bolt said, “Our guide shimmied up the tree and looked inside with his cell phone flashlight and noticed something move. He jumped down because he was terrified of snakes.” Bolt bravely went up himself to analyze the situation first hand. That’s when he saw it, the “king of bees”.
In all actuality, it should be called the Queen of bees because it’s the females who are the giants, measuring almost twice as long as the males, who also lack the impressive mandibles. But never mind, the locals call it the “king of bees”. When Bolt encountered the bee it was neither aggressive nor alarmed, the female was hard at work using her curious mouth to rework the resin that lines her chamber.
The last person to study one of these bees was an entomologist named Adam Messer back in 1981. He wrote about his observations, explaining the bizarre resin-gathering excursions of Wallace’s giant bee, which in addition to its huge mandibles uses a part of the mouth called a labrum to harvest the stuff from a tree. Messer said:
“Facing upward, a female loosened resin with the mandibles, then scraped it up using the elongate labrum in the manner of a bulldozer blade. The ball of resin which formed was held in place between the tree and the labrum while being progressively enlarged. The female would then take it back to her nest, along with wood fibers, to waterproof the tunnel walls.”
After Bolt rediscovered this giant bee and collected it to study, he observed it for a little while, then released it back into the wild out of concern for the state of the species’ population. Knowing that there has been an alarming report regarding huge declines in insect populations, he was extra cautious about keeping his discovery on a need to know basis. Bolt said:
“I felt an incredible responsibility because by saying that this creature does exist, it means that people could try to go in search for it. So that’s why I immediately began talking to authorities and locals in Indonesia to try to figure out a way to help protect it.”
Cornell University entomologist Corrie Moreau, who wasn’t involved in this new work says:
“In a time of biodiversity declines, including for insects, this rediscovery gives us hope that not all is lost and that we have managed to protect not only an amazing bee, but importantly also the unique habitat that is its, and likely many other rare species’, home.”
The challenge is that protecting species like Wallace’s giant bee (named after the man to first find one back in the 1800s) requires understanding them. It entails identifying vulnerable habitats and protecting them at all costs. The larger the insect, the more at risk they are to becoming endangered. Larger species are more vulnerable because “the bigger you are, the fewer of your kind can fit in an ecosystem.”
At least for now, Wallace’s giant bee stands as both a triumph of survival and of the scientific endeavor. “Now’s not the time to wave your hands in despair,” Bolt says. “Now’s the time to get to work and try to do what we can to protect bees.”