Scientists find 'holy grail' of bee discoveries

An international team of scientists and conservationists has announced the finding of what many consider to be the 'holy grail' of bee discoveries  Wallace's giant bee.

The bee (Megachile pluto) is the world's largest, with a wingspan of more than six centimetres (2.5 inches). 

Despite its conspicuous size, the bee has been lost to science since 1981.

In January, a search team that set out to find and photograph Wallace's giant bee successfully rediscovered the species in the North Moluccas, an island group in Indonesia. The find resurrects hope that more of the region's forests still harbour this very rare species.

A member of the team, Honorary Professor Simon Robson from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, said it was an exciting find.

"Amid such a well-documented global decline in insect diversity, it's wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still hanging on," he said.

Scientists said it was breathtaking to see the giant bee.
Scientists said it was breathtaking to see the giant bee. Photo credit: Clayton Bolt

Dr Robson and Dr Glen Chilton, an honorary professor at Saint Mary's University in Canada, joined with Eli Wyman from Princeton University and Clay Bolt, a conservation photographer from Montana, to successfully rediscover the bee. 

The team was supported by Global Wildlife Conservation, an Austin, Texas, based organisation that runs a Search for Lost Species program.

"It was absolutely breathtaking to see this 'flying bulldog' of an insect that we weren't sure existed anymore," said Mr Bolt, a natural history photographer specialising in bees, who took the first photos and video of the species alive after spending years researching the right habitat with collaborator and team member, Eli Wyman from Princeton University.

"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 said,

"My dream is to now use this rediscovery to elevate this bee to a symbol of conservation in this part of Indonesia."

The bee is named after Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer alongside Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution through natural selection. Wallace, an English entomologist, discovered the giant bee exploring the Indonesian island of Bacan. 

The team has already started conversations with Indonesian collaborators to look for Wallace's giant bee in other locations  with the hope of eventually working together to develop a plan to strengthen conservation measures for the bee.

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