THAT’S a bee!

February 22, 2019 • 7:30 am

JAC: In lieu of Reader’s Wildlife Photos today, I’ll take a break and importune you to keep sending me photos (I have a reasonable backlog, but I get nervous. . . .). In its place Greg has contributed a short piece about an enormous bee just rediscovered after several decades.

by Greg Mayer

There are many rare species, especially among invertebrates, that would not be encountered very often, even if they were not in decline. It is thus hard to know some species’ conservation status. Wallace’s Giant Bee (Megachile pluto) has not been seen since 1981, but the New York Times reported on Thursday that it has been rediscovered on one of the islands in its Northern Moluccas range. [Be sure to click on the photo, to get the full effect.]

Wallace’s Giant bee, with a honeybee for scale. Photo by Clay Bolt from The New York Times.

Note the insect in the upper left of the picture. “That’s not a bee.” The insect below it– “THAT’S a bee.”

The species had also not been seen between its discovery by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859 and 1981, so it is perhaps not surprising that it was some time until a third encounter. Simon Robson, of the University of Sydney, reports that only a single individual was found, and photographed and filmed by Clay Bolt. They were part of a team that was part of an effort to search for other species that have not been seen for sometime. A previously unreported specimen of the Giant Bee was sold last year for $9100 on eBay, so there is concern that a market could develop that might make this apparently naturally rare species artificially rarer. That, combined with ongoing deforestation in Indonesia, creates concern for the species’ future.

JAC: I’ve added one photograph (with credits) that I found on another site:

Photograph of a specimen of Wallace’s Giant Bee © NJ Vereecken In Wildlife

22 thoughts on “THAT’S a bee!

    1. “Endangered” is both a legal term and a scientific judgment. According to Clay Bolt, the photographer, the species is not “endangered” in the legal sense, although it is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN. (IUCN is not, of course, a legal body, though its judgments may be adduced in establishing a legal status.)


    2. AFIK CITES relates to named species on its different schedules (international trade restrictions differ depending on which schedule a species is listed on). Of course species are added to the CITES lists on the basis that they are threatened and that trade is a potential factor in this threat but simply being threatened does not mean that the rules apply if they have not been specifically listed under the convention.

      Of course, irrespective of whether something is listed on CITES one could argue that Ebay has an ethical duty to not permit trade in rare or endangered species.

  1. “Endangered” is both a legal term and a scientific judgment. According to Clay Bolt, the photographer, the species is not “endangered” in the legal sense, although it is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN. (IUCN is not, of course, a legal body, though its judgments may be adduced in establishing a legal status.)


    1. “what selective forces favor the huge size […] what does it use those huge jaws for?”

      I’m not a beeologist so I go straight to WIKI:

      Wallace’s giant bees build communal nests inside active nests of the tree-dwelling termite Microcerotermes amboinensis […] The bee uses tree resin to build compartments inside the termite nest, which protects its galleries. Female bees leave their nests repeatedly to forage for resin, which comes frequently from Anisoptera thurifera. The bee’s large jaws assist in resin gathering: the female makes large balls of resin which are held between the jaws. The association of the bee with the termite may be ‘obligate’ **

      ** ‘Obligate’ means that one or both of the symbionts entirely depend on each other for survival.

      It is only the females who have the large jaws & collect resin
      It is only the females which are large
      Being large must aid with resin collection & that must be worth more than the cost of being such a large juicy prey for birds etc.

      I can’t find out anything about the relationship between the bee & the termite, but we might discover that the bee assists in the defence of the termite nest, but info is scarce on nearly everything regarding these two species & their predators.

      1. I am not sure that the relationship between the bee and the termite is symbiotic. (Which does not mean that the relationship is not obligate from the bee’s perspective).

      2. Must be hard to come over sources of resin.

        But this makes me think a beeologist is someone who studies ewwolution. Because, dang!

  2. I’ve seen bees in Germany that were very large, about the size of my thumb from tip to the 1st knuckle. They were fat, velvety like a plush toy and had thick black and yellow bands. Relatively slow flyers and they were very loud. They sounded like a B-17 approaching from a distance.

    But they were nothing compared to this monster.

    1. That description sounds like a bumble-bee species Bombus spp. They can be quite large (particularly the queens which can be seen flying in the early part of the season) but as you say somewhat dwarfed by this creature.

    1. I wish they would have stayed disappeared. Only kidding! Just kidding Megachile pluto. I don’t want to make those guys mad. It’s just a joke so relax huge giant bees.

    1. It lives by itself in holes it digs in termite nests and has a big sting. Clay bolt [co-rediscoverer] says that it appears to be “very docile” & 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. The female Wallace’s giant bee that we found was very calm and unthreatening and showed no sign of aggression toward our team”

  3. Wallace’s Giant Bee must be the most frequently ‘rediscovered’ species of animal in existence! As my colleague David Notton at London’s Natural History Museum points out “There are records for 1859, 1863, 1951, 1953, 1981, 1991, 2018 (Smith, 1860, Friese, 1909; Baker, etc.)” I am pretty sure I saw one in October last year near Obi island and there are many more in museum collections than most people believe. Also, the news reports about this ‘rediscovery’ may well have ‘sensationalised’ how rare and endangered this species is, given that we know a) the bee is found on several large islands, and b) there is still a large amount of forest on these islands. The forests may in fact be buzzing with Giant Bees – it’s just that entomologists rarely go to the islands where this species is found and the bees are probably also very difficult to spot… Before we make statements about how rare and endangered this species is we need to get proper data on the ecological requirements of this species and do surveys in likely habitats on the islands on which we know it has been found. Once the habitat surveys have been done we can calculate how much suitable forest remains – and study how fast it is being destroyed. Only then can we draw any conclusions about how rare or common this species is… Anyway, it’s been a good week for Wallace publicity – what with the unveiling of a massive monument to him in Sulawesi, Indonesia as well:

    1. George–

      Thanks much for this. Two of the three sources I used for the OP cited information from the American Museum of Natural History, and museum experts (as you note yourself) are usually the most knowledgeable about these biodiversity details; but, on closer look, it’s not clear that anyone at the American Museum actually had any input to the current story. I’m glad to have the record corrected here. 1863-1951 is still a big gap, but not as dramatic as the story presented. It would have been better to say the bee is “rarely encountered” (or some such) rather than “rediscovered”.

      In the story, they also did not mention which islands the bees had been found on, which I took to be an attempt to deter collectors. For the conservation assessment of a species, it would make a big difference whether it was found on the big island of Halmahera, vs. endemic to some little island out in the Halmahera Sea.


      1. No criticism of you – just the news reports. The big new achievement was of course to get the first ever photos and video of a living Giant Bee. That is a notable achievement in itself – but perhaps not a big enough one to grab the attention of the Press. The bee is found not only on the massive island of Halmahera, but also Bacan, Tidore and Obi at least. These islands still have a lot of forest (but that situation could soon change of course) and I personally have not seen any palm oil plantations there (some reports said that oil palm plantations were endangering the bee!). It is possible that the original Press Release was entirely reasonable and accurate but the Press distorted the story.

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