Wallace’s Giant Bee Profile
When most people think of bees, they think of the tenacious little colony animals with vast armies of nectar-collecting females who help us put glorified sugar on our breakfasts. And these are very important bees to consider, but they’re far from typical.
Most bee species are solitary, some are even parasitic. There are pollinators, hunters and even scavengers in the bee world, and they come in all shapes and sizes across tens of thousands of species that even experts can’t tell apart.
So you shouldn’t be surprised when you hear of one four times the size of a honeybee with immense jaws that gather balls of tree sap and lives with termites.
Megachile pluto, or Wallace’s giant bee is a resin bee found in Indonesia, and the largest known bee species in the world.
Wallace’s Giant Bee Facts Overview
|Habitat:||Inside termite mounds in primary lowland forest|
|Size:||Up to 6.5cm (2.5 inches) long|
|Colour:||Black, with a white band|
|Diet:||Pollen and nectar|
|No. of Species:||1|
|Conservation Status:||Vulnerable (ICUN)|
Wallace’s giant bee is a rare, black bee that is believed to only live on a few remote islands in the jungles of Indonesia.
In 2019, after five days of near heatstroke and humid jungle trekking, researchers found a bee that had been missing to science for over thirty years.
But this rediscovery brings with it questions about the damage that public awareness can do in conservation, and without rapid implementation of protections, its triumphant return might be just the event to spell its demise.
Interesting Wallace’s Giant Bee Facts
1. They are the largest known living bee species
Wallace’s giant bees have a wingspan of 2.5 inches (63.5mm), and can grow to around 1.5 inches (38mm) in length.
To put this into perspective, they are about the same size as an adults thumb.
It’s only females that are able to reach this large size though, males only grow up to around 1 inch in length in comparison. Females are also the only ones with large jaws.
2. The name ‘Wallace’s giant bee’ comes from an explorer
The common name ‘Wallace’s giant bee’ is derived from the name of Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist and explorer, who was the first to collect the bee.
3. They’re rare!
pulo is a member of the megachilid family. These are commonly solitary bees who carry their pollen on their bellies, rather than in leg sacs like most other bees.
This family of over 630 species contains the mason and leafcutter bees, and Wallace’s giant bee is a particularly rare individual.
This bee is found in only three locations on the islands of the North Moluccas in Indonesia: Bacan, Halmahera, and Tidore; and is considered rare in each of them.
So far, it’s only known in lowland primary forests. Primary forest is that which is mature, old-growth forest and has been undisturbed by humans for generations, usually since ancient times.
So, as you can imagine, there isn’t a lot of habitat left for the bee. 1
4. They were thought to be extinct
So rare in fact, are these bees, that until recently, the previous sighting of one was from the ‘80s. Since then, it was thought that the species had finally gone extinct but in 2019, researchers found the first living example in decades, reigniting conservation talks in the region.
This discovery was inspired by the arrival on auction sites of two deceased specimens, on sale to an emerging market of wealthy insect collectors and purchased by them for several thousands of dollars.
Just a few months later, the first live specimen was found and filmed by researchers. 2
5. They collect resin
Like several other members of this family, Wallace’s bee is a resin collector. The enormous jaws of the insect, while intimidating, are used for scraping this resin off fissures in the surface of their host trees.
Females use these huge mandibles, along with a shovel-like tongue, to roll the resin into balls around 1cm in diameter.
This resin is used to build and protect their communal nests, which are often made several feet up in the trees they live on, inside termite mounds. 3
6. These bees may need termites
It’s unclear how obligatory the relationship between these giant bees and their termite hosts is. It’s possible that this is a symbiotic or commensal relationship in which at least one of the two species couldn’t survive without the other.
It certainly appears that this bee makes good use of termite mounds, using a species that lived way up off the ground and builds clay nests on the trunks.
Inside this mound, the bee constructs tunnels and chambers, lined with the resin it collects, and will lay its eggs and supply food for its young inside the relative protection of the termite colony.
7. But we’re not sure about much else
Aside from a brief description of its location and some mention of territorial behaviour in the males upon rediscovery in 2019, the research into this bee is sorely lacking.
Even local information is hard to come by. The native people to the areas in which the bee inhabits have no knowledge of the species, although they do have a saying ‘raja ofu’, which translates to ‘king bee’, that’s based on it.
Sadly, for a bee that’s so hard to find there’s not likely going to be a lot of new discoveries about its ecology in a hurry.
8. Bees are so neglected
There’s a reason why the WWF logo isn’t an insect face. Cute animals get the most attention – in fact, animals with the largest eyes typically elicit the most financial support from donors.
This concept, known as the Charity Beauty Premium, skews funding towards high-profile conservation issues such as panda preservation and away from that of much more globally significant issues such as bee decline.
Even the local populations where the bee was recently rediscovered seemed to show no interest in claiming it as an emblem for their islands.
9. But there are solutions
But collectors already knew the bee existed, as evidenced by the two specimens found online months before researchers rediscovered them.
So, keeping it quiet would do nothing but reduce the backing for conservation efforts while collectors chipped away at the last remaining individuals.
So, raising awareness and bringing that momentum with public backing to the Indonesian government’s attention could be the best way forward.
And with any luck, a high-profile giant bee may also become the flagship species for bee conservation worldwide, too.
Still, it seems that protections are slow to arrive, and with collectors and the growing threat of palm oil plantations on their habitats, we may lose this species again in the coming years.
Wallace’s Giant Bee Fact-File Summary
Fact Sources & References
- “Wallace’s Giant Bee”, ICUN Red List.
- Nicolas J. Vereecken (2018), “Wallace’s Giant Bee for sale: implications for trade regulation and conservation”, Springer Link.
- Adam Catton Messer (1984), “Chalicodoma pluto: The World’s Largest Bee Rediscovered Living Communally in Termite Nests (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae)”, JSTOR.
- CYNTHIA CRYDER(2017), “The Charity Beauty Premium: Satisfying Donors’ “Want” Versus “Should” Desires”, JSTOR
- David De Jong (2023), “The global challenge of improving bee protection and health”, Frontier.