Scientists rediscover world′s largest bee in Indonesia | News | DW | 21.02.2019
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Scientists rediscover world's largest bee in Indonesia

After going unseen for 40 years, scientists have rediscovered a bee in Indonesia so large that it is nicknamed the "flying bulldog." Researchers feared the giant bee had gone extinct.

The world's largest bee — roughly the size of a human thumb — has been spotted in a remote part of Indonesia in its first sighting in nearly 40 years, researchers said Thursday.

The bee, which goes by the scientific name Megachile pluto, lives in the Indonesian island region of North Moluccas and makes its nest in termite mounds, using its large fang-like mandibles to collect sticky resin to protect its home from the termites.

Read more: Good bees, bad wasps?

Female bees can reach a length of 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches) and have a wingspan of more than 6 centimeters, while males grow to about 2.3 centimeters. 

Megachile pluto Biene (Clay Bolt)

Researchers feared the giant bee had gone missing forever or even gone extinct

The 'holy grail'

The team of international conservationists and researchers released photographs and video of a nest and its queen and described their discovery as the "holy grail" of species discoveries.

A number of expeditions to find the bee — nicknamed the "flying bulldog" due to its large size — have failed, and the discovery provides hope that more of the region's forests may be home to the very rare species, said the team, which includes researchers from the University of Sydney, Saint Mary's University in Canada and Princeton University in the United States. 

"Amid such a well-documented global decline in insect diversity, it's wonderful to discover that this iconic species is still hanging on," said Simon Robson, a member of the team and professor at the University of Sydney.

Natural history photographer Clay Bolt described seeing the bee as "absolutely breathtaking."

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

Last seen in 1981

The insect is named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection before Charles Darwin's published contributions.

Wallace collected the species for the first time in 1858 while he was exploring the Indonesian island of Bacan. 

The bee was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1981 by US entomologist Adam Messer, who found six nests on the island of Bacan and two other nearby islands. It had not been seen again since.

Eli Wyman, a researcher from Princeton University, said Messer's find had given some insight, "but we still know next to nothing about this extraordinary insect."

The International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List of Threatened Species" categorizes the bee as "vulnerable," meaning that while there are a significant number of the insects, the remoteness of its population makes it difficult to study.

Deforestation in Indonesia is a concern for some animal and insect communities as forests being cut down for agriculture threaten many species' natural habitat.

Between 2001 and 2017, Indonesia lost 15 percent of its tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.

law/sms (AFP, dpa)

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