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World's biggest bee, thought extinct, rediscovered in Indonesia

Last year, a Wallace's giant bee specimen sold for more than $9,000 on eBay.

By
Brooks Hays
Female specimens of Wallace's giant bee are much larger than males. Photo by Clay Bolt/Global Wildlife Conservation
Female specimens of Wallace's giant bee are much larger than males. Photo by Clay Bolt/Global Wildlife Conservation

Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The world's largest bee species, missing for 38 years, was presumed extinct, but scientists have discovered a female specimen of Wallace's giant bee inside a termite nest on one of Indonesia's Maluku Islands.

After several days of searching termite mounds in the heavy heat of the tropical island forests, a group of North American and Australian entomologists found a hole big and round enough to have been made by a very large bee.

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"The structure was just too perfect and similar to what we expected to find. I climbed up next and my headlamp glinted on the most remarkable thing I'd ever laid my eyes on," Clay Bolt, a wildlife photographer who helped document the search, wrote in a blog post. "I simply couldn't believe it: We had rediscovered Wallace's Giant Bee."

British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who explored many of Southeast Asia's most remote ecosystems, first described the giant bee species, Megachile pluto, in 1858. In just journals, Wallace described the species as "a large, black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag beetle." He also wrote that the bee was big as a human thumb.

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Female specimens measure more than 1.5 inches in length and boast a wingspan of 2.5 inches. Males are considerably smaller.

Wallace, who encountered thousands of rare and unique species during his expeditions, devoted only a single line of his journal to the bee. He was relatively uninterested, but in the 20th century, the bee's elusive status captured the imagination of many entomologists.

In 1981, Adam Messer, an entomologist, collected several specimens from three different Indonesian islands, but the bee was missing and presumed extinct until now.

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The rediscovery is being celebrated by entomologists, but scientists worried about the species vulnerable status are concerned the publicity will put the giant bee in danger.

"We know that putting the news out about this rediscovery could seem like a big risk given the demand, but the reality is that unscrupulous collectors already know that the bee is out there," Robin Moore, a conservation biologist with Global Wildlife Conservation, which funded the expedition, told the Guardian.

Last year, a Wallace's giant bee specimen sold for more than $9,000 on eBay.

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"If you can get that much money for an insect, that encourages people to go and find them," expedition member Simon Robson, a biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, told the New York Times.

Many scientists are also concerned the threat of deforestation facing many rare Indonesia species.

In his blog post, Bolt wrote that it is his "mission is to work with Indonesian researchers and conservation groups to ensure protection for this magnificent species."

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