The sad story of the world’s largest bee

While working as an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, Eli Wyman learned about a very unusual bee that was believed to be extinct. The bee, Megachile Pluto, also known as Wallace’s giant bee, is a giant entity. It is the largest bee in the world, four times larger than a honey bee and about the length of a human thumb.

Huge mandibles hang from his head like sneaky secateurs. Or at least – the bee had not been seen alive since 1981 and was presumed lost.

“I just thought, ‘One day I have to look for this bee.’ It’s kind of a unicorn in the bee world,” says Wyman.

“If you love bees like I do,” he added, “this is the ultimate adventure.”

In 2019, Wyman teamed up with Clay Bolt, a natural history photographer, and two other researchers on an expedition with similar ambitions to rediscover the bee in its last known stronghold on the Indonesian islands north of the Moluccas. Plans to take samples from the bee for genetic testing were scrapped due to licensing issues, so the team embarked on the unique mission of being the first to see the giant in 38 years.

The bee liked to live in termite nests, so modern-day adventurers took a boat to Halmahera, the largest of the northern Maluku Islands, and met up with the village chief, where the bee was last seen, to help find the most likely nests. They spent the next five fruitless days trudging through the fragmented forest looking for nests and “nearly dying of heat stroke,” Wyman recalls.

A drawing of the female Megachile Pluto by Dr. H. Friese (1911).public domain

By that point, the men had almost resigned themselves to not finding the bee and were desperately debating whether to photograph some birds instead, Wyman says. Then, at the end of the fifth day, they were ambling back to their car when the group spotted a termite mound off the trail. An exhausted Wyman reluctantly offered to take a closer look.

A quick scan of the towering nest turned up nothing, Wyman says, but then a dark spot caught his eye and he realized it was an entrance hole.

“That’s when my heart started beating,” he says. The hole was about seven feet off the ground, so Wyman propped up a branch, climbed it, and looked inside. He saw that the tunnel was lined with resin, which is what Wallace’s giant bee does to seal its nest from termites.

“We are the shepherds of these incredible creatures.”Naturalis Biodiversity Center

A local guide then climbed up to take a look, Wyman says, making a hand gesture resembling an antenna and quickly helping build a platform of branches and vines for the group to see the view. At this point, Wyman could clearly see the bee’s head and mandibles. Wyman’s nine-year-old itch was scratched.

“We just hugged and high-fived,” he says. “I was so beat down from the heat and work and all of a sudden I felt light on my feet.”

A rare piece of good wildlife media, the rediscovery of Wallace’s giant bee has been splattered across outlets around the world, illustrated with images of an enthusiastic Wyman and his colleagues holding a vial with the burly insect inside. (They released it after taking photos.) Officials in Indonesia promised there would be a thorough investigation of the bee, Wyman says, paving the way for adequate protection for the bee.

Wyman hoped local people would proudly adopt the bee to protect it too, but talk ebbed, momentum faltered, he says. “That was a real crap for us.”

Worse, knowledge of the bee’s existence has lit up a murky corner of the internet that specializes in the rare animal trade. Shortly after returning to the United States, Wyman saw someone trying to sell a specimen of the bee for a few thousand dollars on eBay — enticing bait for the North Moluccas’ subsistence farmers and fishermen, who could get a share of this relative’s wealth.

The bee had become something unusual, a kind of rare trophy like an endangered rhinoceros. That sometimes happens with insects: in Germany, a rare beetle named after Adolf Hitler was considered critically endangered more than a decade ago as it became a popular collectible for neo-Nazis. Wyman wanted to emphasize the conservation potential of Wallace’s giant bee, but had also inadvertently exposed its value to private collectors, exposing it to greater danger. Mankind had managed to find another way to destroy an insect species.

There are millions of undiscovered species of insects living in other piles of earth or in the bark of trees or under our feet that are in danger of dying out unnoticed. The Wallace’s giant bee would have been just another unnamed casualty squeezed from its shrinking habitat had it not been for the world’s largest bee, and therefore a sort of holy grail for a group of western researchers. We can now look him in the eye, say his name out loud, and know that he lives among us.

But the most sobering aspect of the bee-hunting adventure is that even her keen interest in the species didn’t give her much reprieve.

“Nobody cares,” Wyman says sullenly. “Even for something as charismatic as the world’s largest bee, we don’t seem to be able to muster enough interest to give it conservation status or conduct proper surveys.” (The bee was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2014, has but no such status as determined by the Indonesian authorities.)

“We are losing this incredible part of our natural history and heritage of the Earth.”

When the world’s largest bee is vulnerable, it’s easy without such a celebrity to be pessimistic about all the millions of insect species.

We may struggle with the notion that bees are generally in trouble, but the reason for caring is usually formulated in human-centric terms – they pollinate our food and provide a comforting sight in a summer garden. The severing of these bonds threatens us as well as them.

The Wallace’s giant bee has no such use in ignorant servitude — it doesn’t flit about to make sure the locals have plenty of pickles and apples to eat. But the bee, like all insects, certainly has its own value that has nothing to do with humans. After all, insects have been on earth more than 1,000 times longer than we have. In many ways, they created the world we live in and keep it ticking despite our excesses.

The giant bee with its comically big chin deserves to be here, as do the everyday catchy tunes, crickets and moths. It’s part of the amazing fabric of life of our world, the only known life in this universe, and our rumbling complacency is a poor arbiter of which elements we should allow to be casually wiped out.

“People talk about economic value or what ends up on our plates, but insects always have intrinsic value,” says Wyman. “We are the shepherds of these incredible creatures.”

At the end, Wyman adds, “We are losing this incredible part of our natural history and heritage on Earth.”

This article was originally published on Dark through Oliver Milman. Read the original article here.

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