The world’s biggest bee, which has been lost to science for almost 40 years, has been rediscovered in the wild. The species, Megachile pluto, also known as Wallace’s giant bee, is around four times bigger than the European honeybee. It is estimated to have a wingspan of around 2.5 inches and has enormous, beetle-like jaws it uses to gather resin and wood for its nest.
Wallace’s giant bee was discovered by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace during an expedition trip to the Indonesian island of Bacan in 1858. He found the bee on the last day of exploring the island. Describing it, he said it was a “large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle.”
The next time the bee was seen was 1981 when American entomologist Adam Messer reported sightings on three different Indonesian islands. During this time, he documented some aspects of its behavior—like how it builds nests inside termite mounds. Since then, the species has been lost to science.
To rediscover it, an expedition team led by Clay Bolt and Eli Wyman traveled to the Indonesian island of North Moluccas. They spent their time around termite mounds, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive species. After five days, the team came across a single female living inside an arboreal termites’ nest in a tree, eight feet above ground.
“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed anymore, to have real proof right there in front of us in the wild To actually see how beautiful and big the species is in life, to hear the sound of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible,” Bolt said in a statement.
He told Newsweek that for the last 40 years, the bee had essentially been hiding in plain sight. “This bee seems to be very secretive in nature and historically, it has possibly always been somewhat rare,” he said. “It is also possible that it mainly collects pollen from flowering trees putting it out eyesight for most locals.
He said female bees appear to be “very docile,” and that unlike social honeybees, they do not tend to sting. “The vast majority of the 20,000 known species of bee in the world are quite calm and not aggressive,” he said. “The female Wallace’s giant bee that we found was very calm and unthreatening and showed no sign of aggression toward our team.”
Wyman said that while Messer’s observations of the bee provided some insight, virtually nothing is known about it. The team now hopes to carry out more research on the species and raise awareness of it in order to protect it from extinction—over the last 20 years, Indonesia has lost huge areas of forest to make way for agriculture.
The huge size and apparent rarity of the species has also made it a target for wildlife trade. The team hopes that raising awareness of Wallace’s giant bee that more people will be interested in protecting it.